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Library Quest: Six Steps to Research Success

By Diane Lockman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #98, 2011.

Diane outlines a step-by-step method for researching at the library
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Diane Lockman

by Diane Lockman

Computers in a library

Each September when my club reconvenes to prepare for another competitive speech and debate season, I hear the same plaintive cry from a few teens. “I don’t know where to begin,” they sigh. Even seasoned veterans often find themselves “speech-less” when trying to discover arguments that persuade, entertain, and inform.

Why is it so difficult to refine and focus a broad idea?

As busy adults, we often forget that research is a learned skill and not one that is acquired at birth. Consequently, we become frustrated when an assigned paper seems to aimlessly ramble along without a clear thesis or substantive evidence.

How can you solve this problem? Take them by the hand, and show them how to research both at the library and on the internet. With a systematic search strategy, every teen can gain access to relevant and useful resources. Wondering what to write about will never be a problem again; in fact, if your teen follows these simple steps, he will find much more info than he can possibly use.

Two-fold Search Strategy

Today, successful research requires skills in using the hard-copy texts at the local library and the electronic texts of the Internet. This generation’s first inclination is to go to the Internet, but the worldwide web does not yet contain a comprehensive, unlimited array of documents. Search engines return the most likely results based on keywords, and the most important documents may not even come up in your search if you don’t use the same terms as the webmaster. So resist the temptation to start with the Internet. A good old-fashioned trip to the library first will make the Internet search that much more productive when you get home.

Acting like a tour guide at a museum, take your students to the library for a hands-on demonstration and research binge. Pick a general topic, and sequentially follow it through all six steps so that you move from the most general reference works to the more specific ones. You might skip a step or loop back for more detail later, but start your research in this order. With each step, drill deeper.

Watch what I find when I research Shakespeare.

Step One: Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias come in all varieties. General use texts like Britannica provide high-level articles that summarize the main ideas of the topic, while specialized encyclopedias go into greater depth about specific components of the topic. The best thing about encyclopedias is the big-picture overview. The student can pick a topic and quickly scan the sub-headings to narrow the scope of interest.

First, I start with a general encyclopedia, Comptons, and scan the bold headings for some ideas. “Secrets of the Sonnets,” “Drama in the Elizabethan Age,” and “Critics Explore Authenticity” pique my interest. Next, I look in the specialized Shakespeare Encyclopedia: The Complete Guide to the Man and His Works. I find a significant section on his sonnets, and I decide that my selected theme will somehow relate to them.

Step Two: Dictionaries

Dictionaries help us understand the terms of the topic. Like encyclopedias, there are many specialized dictionaries. Start with a general-use text like the Oxford English Dictionary. Then explore the specific terms of the definition by consulting specialized subject dictionaries, such as Shakespeare’s Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary. I learn what a sonnet is. Then I look up the definitions for the terms within the definition including prosody, poem, sentiment, iambic pentameter, rhyme, sestet, quatrain, and couplet.

Step Three: Handbooks

Providing an overview that is generally more detailed than an encyclopedia, handbooks suggest ideas for further investigation in books and journals on a subject. Often handbooks include photos or drawings that might suggest further ideas. I find the Essential Shakespeare Handbook especially helpful in understanding poetic meters and the historical context and popularity of the sonnet.

Step Four: Bibliographies

Look at the end of most encyclopedia and handbook articles for the bibliography. This is the listing of all the references (title and author) consulted in compiling the abstract. Additionally, you can find specialized, stand-alone bibliographies in the reference section. The bibliography of the Shakespeare Encyclopedia lists at least one book that I want to find, called The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet.

Step Five: Card Catalogue

In most libraries today, the card and drawer system has been replaced by an electronic search engine. Try several keywords, then write down all the call numbers so that you can go find the possible sources scattered throughout the building. In my card catalogue search for Shakespeare’s sonnets, I find audio recordings, books, and articles. Under one detail listing, I find a hyperlink to a category called “Shakespeare: Criticism and Interpretation.” I click on this link and find several more resources.

Step Six: Indexes

Most libraries have multiple databases called indexes which can lead you to the most pertinent periodicals, literature, biographies, and quotations. Ask your reference librarian to show you where the indexes are shelved. First, I start with the periodicals index to find article titles from magazines, newspapers, and journals. I find a short article in the New Zealand Herald called “What’s in a Word” and a New York Times article called “Intent on Shakespeare.”

Next, I pick up an index on British Literature and find several new books on Shakespeare to investigate. Finally, I scan a specialized biographical index on authors where I find a list of biographies on Shakespeare. I can then search for these books in the card catalogue, too.

Time to Organize

Now that you and your teen have gathered lots of fascinating resources, it’s time for extensive reading, taking notes, and asking questions.

To prevent a headache later, keep a working bibliography of sources which will eventually comprise the MLA or Chicago Manual of Style “Works Cited” page. Organize notes into logical groups, and help your teen find a recurring theme that can be crafted into a narrow thesis statement with at least three evidentiary assertions.

Return to the library as necessary, and repeat the six steps to refine ideas.

With this strategy, your teen will have a system for library research that will never render him “speech-less” again.

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