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Finding Sources

Finding Sources

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson explains how to find sources in libraries and online.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We'll be learning about how to find sources for a research paper, we'll cover the different kinds of sources, from physical sources to digital and database sources, and we'll get some tips on how to optimize our use of online search engines, and then we'll model the search.

First, let's talk about the forms that sources can come in. The most common types of sources are books, articles and academic journals, news stories and opinion pieces, magazine articles, government reports, online sources, like websites and blogs, nonfiction television programs and documentaries, and more. It should go without saying. All sources are not created equal, and as such, not all of these types of sources are considered equally credible. Writers of all creeds and experience levels are responsible for choosing the source and information that they use in their essays, and for this reason, we'll spend the rest of this lesson looking at how to most effectively find and evaluate sources of information.

Many sources, both primary and secondary, come in the form of books, articles, and artifacts that are only available in physical form. Thus, it's very likely that at least some of the research materials and essay needs will have to come in the form of physical sources, either from things such as books or newspapers that are only published in print or older, pre-internet sources. For most student researchers this means a trip to the library.

Public or city libraries usually have an interlibrary loan system to get researchers access to academic sources, although this often takes more time than it would for researchers directly associated with a university or community college library. Researchers that think they might need to make use of a loan program should take care to give themselves enough time as it can often take a week or more for material, especially rarer books, to be made available. And since virtually all libraries have online catalogues of their material, searching for sources is, for the most part, an intuitive process. This helps people already used to searching for information on the internet, and it can save a trip to the library looking for a source that may not be available.

Librarians are a good source for advice and assistance with the search. And here I'm referring to professional academic or public librarians, not necessarily anyone working at a library. Trained librarians are expert researchers in addition to generally being experts on what their library has and how to find relevant resources, even obscure or difficult topics.

Academic libraries, whether in private or public universities or community colleges, subscribe to databases that specialize in sources on specialized topics. There are, for example, databases devoted entirely to medical, psychological, humanities, law, and news media sources. These databases are excellent places to look for peer-reviewed sources related to a specific topic or field of study. Going directly to the subject-specific databases can save researchers a lot of time, because they tend to lead to credible sources and sources that are more relevant to whatever the essay's topic is.

The best place to find what databases a particular school's library provides access to is the library's website, though you can also ask librarians brands to direct you to the most appropriate databases for your topic. And when searching the database itself, you should use the strategy of varying keywords and using advanced search options in order to get the best results, just as you would in a more general online search. Many sources of information are available online, and fortunately for researchers, more and more credible publications are appearing online providing online editions of their content.

Of course, not everything's available on the internet, so it's important not to neglect physical sources, even though they do require more work to find sometimes. As for searching online, it can be overwhelming at first, in part because of the vast amount of information available. This can contribute to the overwhelmed feeling some beginning researchers experience because of the challenge of incorporating so much information and the intimidating prospect of need to contribute something useful to all that information. It's best for any writer, student or not, to focus on his or her purpose in writing and use smart online research strategies and not let online research lead to writer's block and procrastination.

When searching for information online, it's important to vary the search terms we use, because doing so will usually yield different results, results that may be more relevant or useful. For example, entering "civil rights" in a search engine like Google, Yahoo!, or any of their competitors will bring up different results than would searching "civil liberties" even though these terms are often used interchangeably. It's important to consider both the denotative and connotative meanings of the words and phrases used in search engines. And in general, it's a good idea to try out several different terms using different angles to approach the topic and changing from formal to informal diction in order to maximize search results.

It's also a very good idea to go beyond the first page of search results when using commercial search engines, since these tend to prioritize results that are popular or that have paid to appear early, neither of which necessarily make for credible or relevant sources. And just like any other source, we should maintain a critical stance when evaluating sources found online. Ruthlessly assessing any potential source's credibility and relevance to your topic will ultimately result in better sources and decreased research time.

I should also take a moment to point out one search engine in particular, Google Scholar. This is Google's search engine focused specifically on academic sources, and it can be found at scholar.google.com. Writers, especially those without easy access to an academic library shared database, can use this search engine to find the peer-reviewed sources that are almost always best for academic research essays. Google and other search engines have an advanced search option that gives researchers more control over the results of any search, allowing them to control how the search engine interprets their keywords, when results were posted, and even the web page results come from.

Now, let's take a look at the difference varying search terms can really make for the research process. Let's say I've been assigned an essay on the topic of the cubism movement in an art history class. It's not a subject I know much about yet, so I begin my search on Google, not Google Scholar or anything. When I enter the terms "cubism" and "art," I come up with a bunch of introductory information in the form of tertiary sources like Wikipedia and a few museums' websites, all of which seem to be providing me with the basic facts about the movement, which could be a good place to start for me, even if I don't actually find anything to use in my essay. There are also some sites that want to sell me posters.

Anyway, after having gained a little information on the movement from the tertiary sources, and having looked at some overpriced prints of Picasso and Cezanne, I've got a better handle on what exactly I'm looking for. To focus my search a little more, I decide to look up "analytical cubism," a form of the movement as I found out, and one "Juan Gris," one of the artists credited with sparking it. This time, I find fewer of the tertiary sources and more in the way of specific articles and websites, things like a magazine devoted to pipes and pipe smoking and the article they did on Juan Gris, who evidently liked to paint people with pipes.

There are also some more useful sources though, as, after scrolling down a ways, I found a few entries on a communal artists' sight. These seemed to be aimed towards an audience with more basic knowledge than me, but I personally consider this a good thing, because these articles, two of them in particular, are doing things like referring to other movements and artists and making assumptions about their reader's interests and perspectives. So I know I found an established discourse community, and that makes it more likely that these sources are credible. After all, they're written for people who understand the topic already, so the chances are lower that they'd be completely inaccurate.

In order to find sources that are more focused on the art itself, that is, on how the Cubists like Gris actually made their art, I chose to do one more search, this time using the terms "cubism" and "human figure," since that's what I think I'm most interested in, the way cubist artists break people up into their component shapes and portray them in a kind of fractured way. As will happen in many searches, I got mixed results.

The first interesting site, that is the first I found that wasn't obviously a tertiary source or an irrelevant for-profit website trying to sell me something, turned out to be a disappointment. At first, it seemed like it was geared towards exactly what I wanted. But when I really started reading it, I slowly realized that the writer was using the site as a way to promote some strange, oddly-phrased points about what does and does not comprise real art, but no evidence or support, of course. Obviously, I decided not to consider this a credible source.

I did find, however, another source, an e-book about the French reception of the Cubism movement which used citations and references to other writers' work to make an argument about how Cubism spread among artists, if not necessarily through imitation, but through inspiring artists outside the movement to reconsider some of their assumptions about perspective and form. It seems like it could be a very useful source for me, and the thing is, I wouldn't have found it if I hadn't been willing to use multiple searches and search terms, varying what I was looking for so I could vary what I found.

What did we learn today? We learned a lot, all about how to find sources for a research paper, from the different types of sources to places to look, libraries, online catalogues and databases, and search engines. We covered it all. And then we looked at an example search so we could see what using a varied open-ended search can yield. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.