Developing a Library
Research Strategy

Choose Your Topic
Background Information
Gather Sources

Library research begins when you need information to solve a problem, to fulfill an academic assignment or for your own purposes.

  • A research strategy is a plan of action that gives direction to your efforts, enabling you to conduct research systematically rather than haphazardly.

A plan of attack can help you stay focused, reduce frustration, enhance the quality of your research and save you time in the long run.

Research is not just compiling a bibliography about a topic.
Writing a research paper is not about cutting and pasting the work of others!

Research is about discovering new ideas, actively thinking about and working with them.  You may use existing information, but should draw your own conclusions, synthesize and integrate your own original ideas into the finished product.

The suggested strategy below is one possible guideline for conducting research that works well with any academic assignment, and can be modified to suit your needs.

Beginning the Library Research Process

Choose and Define Your Topic

Spend some time thinking about how to formulate a reasonable topic from an area of general interest.
A professor might suggest a good research question or even give you an important article to read. You can immediately start to explore for more information by tracking down the articles and publications listed as references in its bibliography.

Be sure you understand the assignment before you begin. If you have any doubts, write down what you think you need to do and discuss it with your instructor to confirm that you're on target.

Feeling stuck? Please consult our research guide to Constructing a search statement, or ask your instructor or a librarian for help refining your topic.

Get Background Information

Become familiar with the ideas, major concepts and basic vocabulary in your chosen research area. Such background knowledge places your topic in a wider context, deepens your understanding and helps you feel more comfortable with it.

  • Encyclopedias are a great place to get an overview of a topic that is new to you.
    Encyclopedias often identify narrower areas within the broad subject, which may suggest a focus for your research. Many encyclopedia article entries also provide a list of references that can help you locate further, more in-depth and scholarly information sources.
  • Work from general to specific.
    If a general encyclopedia doesn't provide enough background information, continue your research with focused subject encyclopedias. Subject encyclopedias like the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology or International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, can be very helpful.
  • Subject dictionaries can help define any unfamiliar words and specialized terminology when researching a new subject in specific disciplines. For example, such resources include Dictionary of Sociology, The Social Work Dictionary, A Feminist Dictionary and A Dictionary of Psychology.
Remember: Encyclopedias are good starting points, but don’t contain ALL the information you'll need on a subject for college level research.

Gather Sources

Sources are generally categorized as being either records of what happened (primary), or reports and commentary compiled after the fact (secondary).

Primary sources include eyewitness accounts published in newspapers, thoughts and feelings recorded in diaries and letters, documented interviews or oral histories, and data collected in the census. 

  • Published material by prominent people, such as The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln or The Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., are also considered primary material.

Secondary sources offer commentary written about events "after the fact."  Most published information (such as standard books and articles) falls into the secondary source category.

  • Additional sources of information may complement what you find in books and articles, and include biographical sources, book reviews, statistics, geographical sources, essays, government publications and video documentaries.  Statistical, geographical and other factual materials can really help to "make your case" by substantiating your points and arguments.

Tips for finding sources:

  • During your research, pursue any useful footnotes, references, subject headings and keywords you find along the way. A good bibliography will suggest additional sources; conducting a search using the subject headings and keywords from one helpful item may lead you to others.
  • Search for other works written by the same author(s). Scholars often become experts in a field and continue publishing on that topic.
  • Look at the book shelves nearby for related works as you gather your information. Selective browsing often reveals materials that your systematic searches may have missed.
  • Evaluate your source material at every point during the research process. Make sure that it adequately addresses your topic.

Get Publication Information Down!

When you find useful information resources, be sure to write down, print, download or photocopy the publication information, or consider emailing the citations and articles to yourself, whatever procedures work best for you.

  • Make sure to record the source of the information, including the date and publication data (author, title, url, publisher, etc.).  You must have this information in order to prepare your bibliography.

For more about citing electronic and traditional information resources,
link to our Ramsey Guide to Citing Sources.


  1. Stay focused and use critical thinking to judge the quality, quantity and appropriateness of information.  Don't stress out. If you get lost in information overload, ask a reference librarian to help you out.
  2. Stay on Topic:
    Ask yourself, "Does my research focus connect logically with my topic and fulfill the requirements of the assignment? Does the information I'm finding match my focus?"
  3. Quantity of Information:
    Keep the final product length in mind while investigating your topic. The amount of material needed for a five-minute speech or a three-page paper is obviously much less than for a fifteen-page document.
  4. Appropriateness of Information:
    Determine the intended audience for your work and gather material written for that audience. Ask for every source, "Is it too simplistic, too advanced, too technical or just right for my topic?"
  5. Synthesize Your Information
    Get organized in order to synthesize and integrate the information you've gathered into your own intellectual product.
  6. Evaluate Your Work
    After completing your synthesized project, evaluate your successes and difficulties. Identify procedures you might change or improve, because without a doubt, you'll need to do more research throughout your school career.

Don't Procrastinate!

  • Keep in mind that you may need resources and materials not held in Ramsey Library.  Allow yourself enough time to get materials from ASU or WCU through ABC Express (which takes two or three days), or from other libraries through Interlibrary Loan (which can take up to two weeks).
  • Research often revolves around an unfamiliar topic, so you may need plenty of time to educate yourself.

Page updated 8/13/2013. 
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