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Research 101 ( in a Nutshell ) 

Getting Started in Library Research 

There are over 12 billion pages posted to the WWW that are open to search engines, and another 200 billion pages that are "hidden" or buried in Deep Web databases as on-demand content. That's an incredible amount of material to sift through. When you are surfing the Web for news, sports, weather and entertainment you may not be aware of how much material is available, and how much poor quality or irrelevant material is posted online.

 Try these seven steps outlined below for a simple and effective search strategy to find information for your research paper, project or presentation. Depending on your topic and your familiarity with the library, you can adapt this outline for your needs.

  1. Identify and Focus Your Topic
  2. Find Background Information
  3. Use Catalogs To Find Books and Media
  4. Find Internet Resources
  5. Use Databases to find Periodical Articles
  6. Evaluate What You Find
  7. Document Your Sources

Any questions about the Worcester State University Library and its resources? Don't hesitate to E-mail library@worcester.edu


Step 1: Identify and Focus Your Topic

Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question. For example, if your topic is: What effect does use of alcoholic beverages have on the health of college students? Then your keywords or concepts would be: alcohol, health, and college students.

  • If you are finding too much information and too many sources, narrow your topic by using the AND operator. For example: alcohol AND health AND college students.

  • Finding too little information may indicate that you need to broaden your topic. Link similar topics with the OR operator. For example, look for information on college OR university students.  (alcohol OR beer OR liquor) AND (college OR university) students.

  • 3 minute YouTube video on using Boolean operators

An excellent source for help in narrowing or expanding your topic is the search engine Ask.com - It is newly revamped with far more relevant results than other search engines. Look in the right menu for "related searches" to narrow or expand your search.

Need help in focusing your topic and starting to write?

  • A short (3 slides) helpful tutorial provides tips on selecting and narrowing/expanding your topic (introduces use of a concept map)
  • Define your topic and developing a research question
  • Mind Map - interactive online way to create an idea map for your topic with main concepts & issues, related terms, synonyms and key phrases
  • The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University has a great page on starting to write your paper.


Step 2: Find Background Information

You might need to get a better sense of what you are looking  for so you will need to do some background research firstStart with Credo Reference - This source has over 500 e-Books with full text of subject-specific encyclopedias, dictionaries, maps, biographical and statistical sources. It also contains an interactive concept mapping feature to help you focus your individual topic. Also try our Web page Reference Shelf for additional general reference sources. On this page there are also links to reputable organizations and associations so that you can verify the authority of websites that you encounter on the Net.

  • Books are a great way to find overviews of your topic: whether you know a lot or a little about your topic, an overview can help you organize complex topics in order to narrow or expand your specific focus. Books also give historical perspective, and offer more in-depth information than you will find on the surface Web.

  • Check the bibliography in the book for references to more material on your topic.

Additional background may be found in your lecture notes, textbooks and reserve readings. Don't hesitate to seek out your professor for his/her help and suggestions in setting the right context for your research.


Step 3: Use Catalogs to Find Books and Media

Begin with what we already own by clicking on the Library Catalog link located at the top of every library website screen. Search under keyword first - when you find a title you like, open the holdings screen for that title, scroll down and click on the subject heading link. This is the more precise terminology, and it's a way to bring together material related by concept, not just random keywords. 

  • All journal titles owned by WSU are now listed in the online catalog.

  • Also use the online catalog (classic version) to renew your books online

  • Use the tab for Course Reserves in the catalog to see a list of what articles, books and videos your professors have put on reserve in the Library

We use the Library of Congress Classification System to organize our books - a combination of letters and numbers. You can browse the shelves by call number to get a good picture of what books the library has related to your topic.

If we don't have something you need, check out the links for Other Libraries. There are links to individual libraries as well as online catalogs for groups of libraries across the country. Remember, you can have access to most area college libraries by getting a Worcester consortium ARC card at the Circulation Desk in the Library.


Step 4: Find Internet Resources

The Web is a great place to find background material for your research. But information found on the Web is not a substitute for library resources. You should plan on using information from the Web to better inform you about your topic, but your professor probably won't let you cite it in your research.

There are three ways to make better use of the Web/Internet for your research. Don't just use the simple search box on the home page of any search engine to find research - quality material.

  1. Yahoo! 
    Click on "More Yahoo Services" to use the Yahoo Directory. Scan the subject tree method of organization to find selected and evaluated sites instead of single random pages. You can also choose a button to search only in the broad subject area - this is like having a subject-specialized search engine for say, education or science, etc.

  2. Google 
    If you want to use a search engine to find better quality sources, dig deeper with Google Scholar. Click on "More Services" on the Google home page to find this search tool. It searches only dot edu domains and scholarly publisher websites. It also finds books on your topic as well as research articles. But you'll have to click on the find in a library link to see if we own a book, and use our databases for the full text of the articles.
    Using Google Scholar (Emory University)

  3. Use directories and subject specialized resources. The best ones are prepared by experts in the field or librarians across the country and can be found on our web directories page. Search in fairly broad terms as you are searching their smaller index of selected, quality sites - not the Internet at large.

Remember to always evaluate what you find on the Surface Web when you are using search engines for research purposes.  Also read Step 6 below.


Step 5: Use Databases to Find Periodical Articles

 Searching for scholarly articles is a little like being a detective. You first have to know where to look. After you have located some background information in books and on the free surface Web, you are ready to search the library's databases.

Why use databases for research? Most scholarly information is not freely available on the Internet. Library Databases index electronic versions of articles from traditional print magazines and journals – these are the kinds of sources that your instructors expect you to use. They are the same as the article printed on paper, only the format has changed.

  1. Choose the databases best suited to your particular topic. If you need help figuring out which database to use, consult our list of  subject guides arranged under broad categories such as criminal justice, art, psychology, sociology, etc. There is also a guide for General and multi-disciplinary coverage which you can use to get started in library research. These guides link to selected and evaluated material worthy of inclusion in your research. They also link you to specialized web directories, or subject guides prepared by experts in the field who guide you to the best online resources.

  2. The WSU subscription databases are the place to find primary material, scholarly peer reviewed journals that professors demand for your research. These are resources that can't be found using search engines as they are available only by subscription to libraries. The databases have advanced search features such as the capability to combine searches for very precise results. And, of course, many of these databases also have large collections of full text articles that you can print out or save a PDF copy to your computer.

    Because these indexes to scholarly material can perform very complex searching, they are not always easy to use. If you run into problems and have a question about the use of library databases, don't hesitate to E-mail

  3. Remember that there are different types of materials that can be useful to your research, and each may require different methods of searching to find and use it effectively. For example, you may need to find publications by scholarly organizations, or use newspapers to find current information and editorial opinions, or government reports for statistics and other reliable information. Be able to recognize the different types of published material such as journals, magazines and newspapers - and how each type can be useful in your research.

Articles not available full text online? Books not owned by Worcester State? Then use the Interlibrary Loan service which borrows books or obtains photocopies of articles for you. There are online forms available for your convenience in submitting requests. This service is limited to use by the WSU community.


Step 6: Evaluate What You Find

When you are engaged in the research process, you want to limit your searching to quality, reliable, credible and accurate sites.

Who can you trust?  There are no filters online like there are for published books and articles. The Web is a self-publishing medium so anyone can publish anything online - and they do. Content on the Internet (Web) ranges from good to awful; accurate to downright wrong, misleading or dangerous. When you use search engines, you're only crawling the surface of the billions of individual web pages posted online.

lways examine websites with a critical eye, especially those you encounter for the first time. Using the Internet for research requires different standards. Search smarter by using our checklist of 5 criteria for Evaluating Web Sites


Step 7: Document Your Sources Using a Standard Format 

As you progress through the different steps in the research process, you must remember to copy the correct citation for each source you use - you will need it again later.

When you organize your resources into a reference list and bibliography, you must list them in correct format. Don't be guilty of plagiarism, even if it is by accident, simply because you don't know how to credit your sources. Even if you don't use exact quotes from material you consult, you must credit the ideas. This not only avoids plagiarism, but is good scholarly practice!  

There are many links to online guides for Citing Online Sources with examples of correct format. These are available 24X7 whenever you need them. You can search by the most popular formats: MLA, APA, Turabian, and Chicago. There are also general guides that help you set up your paper correctly too.


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