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Researching a Topic in 4 Easy Steps
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Research assistance    More tips on researching at Yale    Printable version of this guide

More tips on researching a topic at Yale

Defining your topic

What's your angle?

Example: You're writing a paper on the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany.

What perspective do you plan to study? A historical, sociological, or political one? Are you interested in the events leading up to it, or its consequences? Do you want to highlight the differences between East and West Germany before reunification? Is there another angle? Literary? Clarifying and refining your questions will help you approach the topic more systematically and identify relevant sources.

What alternate terms might be relevant to your topic?
Think about what vocabulary/search terms could be used in reference to your subject, e.g., "fall of the wall" vs. reunification (unification). Part of preparing a search is coming up with relevant, synonymous terms that capture your topic.
Finding material written on your topic

What types of things can you expect to find at the Library?

Libraries traditionally separate resources according to their formats - print materials from microtext, electronic resources from print, visual materials from audio, and, in some cases, books from periodicals. These artificial separations are counteracted by a variety of specialized tools, including Abstracts, Almanacs, Bibliographies, Catalogs, Databases, Encyclopedias, Finding aids, Guides, and Indexes, all of which are designed to identify and point to information regardless of format.

Libraries also utilize classification systems and subject headings to categorize content regardless of format. Yale libraries now use the Library of Congress Classification system and Library of Congress Subject Headings, but various other classification and subject heading systems have been used in the past.

Which Yale Library should you use?
There are twenty-two libraries and numerous special collections in the Yale library system. See the Library Locations map for links to their individual Web sites. Overviews of the Area Studies Collections and Special Collections at Yale are also available. The Yale online catalog, Orbis, combines records from many of the Yale libraries and lets you know where the books or journals you want are physically located. You can also get a sense of which Yale library is most relevant to your work by looking at the Subject Guides that have been developed by Yale librarians.
The following catalogs will help you find books, journal titles, and other types of material:
  • Orbis, the Yale University Library online catalog will show materials that, for the most part, are immediately available to you on campus.
  • Eureka/RLIN, is a major union catalog of records describing books, serials, archival collections, manuscripts, maps, musical scores, sound recordings, films, photographs, posters, computer files, electronic resources that shows materials that are held in research, corporate, and public libraries, as well as museums, archives and historical societies, all around the country. Use the Yale Links Many of these materials can be ordered through Interlibrary Loan.
  • WorldCat , another online "union catalog", contains records of books and other materials held in thousands of academic, public, special and national libraries around the world. Many of these materials can be ordered through Interlibrary Loan.
Your search terms are extremely important, since your results will only reflect materials whose titles or descriptions include the words you use. Knowing the correct terminology and coming up with synonymous terms will help you cover your bases. Sometimes, but not always, you will get a cross-reference to the correct or alternate headings: 
Subject Search: germany--history--unification, 1990
Subject Search: comparative literature
Subject Search: vietnam war
Since even these cross-references are not foolproof, you should try out synonymous terms, which can bring up distinct results:
Subject Search: male studies
Subject Search: masculinity
Subject Search: mens studies
The record of a relevant book or journal can lead you to appropriate subject headings for further searching. For example, search this title in Orbis: 
speaking for themselves the personal letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill
Then search the subject headings you see in the record. You can click on a subject heading to search that subject heading: 
Subjects (Library of Congress): Churchill, Winston, Sir, 1874-1965 --Correspondence.
Churchill, Clementine, Lady, 1885-1977 --Correspondence.
Prime ministers--Great Britain--Correspondence.
Prime ministers' spouses--Great Britain--Correspondence.
Great Britain--Politics and government--20th century.


You can also cull useful terms from subject headings to construct more complex keyword searches, e.g.: a keyword search for churchill and winston and correspondence. Notice that terms may differ even among subject headings, so that using alternate terms will help you find related materials: 

Subject Search: Germany--History--Unification, 1990
Subject Search: german reunification question (194-1990)

The results screen is a browsable list of all subject headings. You can use the Previous and Next buttons to browse other alphabetically arranged subject headings.

Catalogs include newspapers and magazines, but not their contents. To find articles, you need to search periodical indexes (see below). 

Bibliographies or research guides (all formats): Librarians and archivists here at Yale have created numerous topical research guides to aid researchers. The Subject Guides are excellent starting points for identifying relevant research materials here at Yale, at other institutions, and on the Internet. Some of the Subject Guides emphasize Internet sources, while others incorporate bibliographies of printed materials. 

Many published bibliographies exist that cover anything from entire disciplines to specific topics, such as noteworthy people, historical events, or particular time periods. Such guides might be fairly general or extremely specialized. You can search for a bibliography in Orbis or another catalog with a subject or keyword search.

Subject Search: Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)--Bibliography--Catalogs
Subject Search: history--bibliography
Subject Search: literature--history and criticism--bibliography
Keyword Search: jew? and history and bibliography (will search jew, jews, jewish... and history and bibliography)
As mentioned above, the records of known titles can help you identify appropriate subject terms:
Title Search: guide to historical literature
Title Search: holocaust : a selected monographic bibliography
Look for articles and book chapters in indexes
Catalogs include newspapers and magazines, but not their contents. To find articles, you need to search periodical indexes. There are general and specialized scholarly indexes, as well as indexes to popular magazines and newspapers. General indexes can help you get started or give you enough for a short paper. For more thorough research, such as that required for seminar papers and senior essays, a discipline-specific index may be more appropriate. Many indexes are available online; however, some exist only as a CD-ROM in a particular library, or as a printed series. 

Research Guides by Subject and Databases & Article Searching will help you to identify useful indexes for your research.

While search commands differ among databases, the same principles for subject and keyword searching in catalogs apply to index searching. Most databases have online help; the information pages for the databases often point to web-based tutorials and search guides (see, for example, the Wilson Web information page).

General academic indexes and abstracts:

Examples of specialized indexes: Indexes and databases for newspapers and popular press: It is crucial to remember that many online indexes contain only current citations. However, many were preceded by printed equivalents, which are frequently mentioned on the databases' information page under "Other Versions" or "Related Sources" (see, for example, the Readers’ Guide Retrospective information page). While the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature, which dates back to 1901, is exceptional, it is worth it to notice the coverage of a database and its predecessors.
Is it smart to use the Internet for your research?

Three points to remember:

  1. Web pages freely available to the public out on the Internet are in a whole different universe from the electronic resources for which the Library pays to have access. Make sure you take advantage of all the Yale money being invested in the powerful tools available through Databases & Article Searching.

  2. You can't trust everything you find on the Web. If you use web resources, be sure to ask these questions.

  3. Yale librarians have "filtered out" many of the best Web sites and put links to them in the Subject Guides that they have developed.
How to locate materials
  • Books: look up a book by author or title in the catalog (remember to check the Morris card catalog for law-related books). The catalog will give you the library, location, and call number. Each library has local stack directories and floor plans. Treat dissertations like books (references to Dissertation Abstracts lead to summaries, not the full text of dissertations or search Dissertations and Theses - Full Text for fulltext of dissertations published after 1997.)
  • Journal articles: look up the journal title in Orbis; if it is there, check the holdings to verify which volumes the Library has and Notes ( e.g. Current issues in SML Periodical Room. (Section 9)) and Current Issues. The library owns all the volumes under "Current Issues" as well as what's listed under "Library Has." They are listed separately because current issues are often shelved separately from the bound or microfilmed back issues. Make sure you note the location for the issues you need, and any status information, which will show up after the holdings.
  • Anything not held at Yale: submit an ILL request. See Document Delivery Services for more information. Remember to allow 2-3 weeks for Interlibrary loans. Materials will not be forwarded to out of town locations, nor will they be held beyond their regular due date if you are away. The same is true for Hold and Eli Express requests, which will not remain at Circulation beyond the usual time period.
  • Remember to cite your sources. Look here for help citing materials (both printed materials and sources on the web).

More help:

Orbis Help Guide
Yale University Library Workshops & Tutorials.

Back to Researching a Topic in Four Easy Steps

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This file last modified 07/31/06
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