Got an assignment to prep? Tips from the coalface on how to NOT shoot yourself in the foot…

Okay. My library experience has given me many many things. The ability to spot a fungal infection on a book (ick). The ability to talk at length about the first 152 pokemon (from then I get a little iffy).

And the ability to tell students that they’ve shot themselves in the foot before they’ve even begun writing an assignment.

I regularly see people having major problems in locating reputable and useful sources for their studies. So here are my top ten tips on how to navigate the world of research.

  1. Know your available resources. For example if you have access to a library which specialises in management, it’s unlikely they’ll have much on kittens.
  2. Know your angles. Textile production in Russia is fine. Maybe a little broad but you can narrow it down. A paper discussing Textile Production in Factories with One Cat and Three Employees is going to make a ridiculous amount of sources unusable. Don’t rule out resources before you’ve even begun.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s okay. Even the scary (and trust me, we’re really not)  librarians had to learn some time. We are here to help you. If you need help that we can’t provide then we’ll find it out together.
  4. Keywords, keywords, keywords. Going back to my example of Cats and Russia, if you search for the phrase “Textile Production in Factories with One Cat and Three Employees” (and fyi, search in speech marks for an entire phrase) you will get nothing. Split up your thesis statement into component parts; “Textile Production” “Factories” “Cats” “Three Employees”. Search for these phrases in combination with the others and don’t be afraid to mix and match. That’s the joy of research – you never know what’s going to come up.
  5. Don’t trust Google. It looks all shiny and brilliant but it will rapidly lead you down the route of paying for an article. Start your research with what your library / educational establishment is providing (as, to be honest, you’re paying for this stuff so you really should use it!) and start from there.
  6. Get confident on recognising different forms of citation. Learn what’s an article and what’s a book. Clue – articles usually have volumes / issue numbers in.
  7. Write down the details of EVERY book you read even if you don’t plan to cite it at the time. Because three weeks later, you’ll remember an awesome point from some book you read and you need to know which book it was. Don’t you dare go back to your library and spend hours looking for the  blue book with a picture of the dog on the front. You’re better than that. Plus if you do the whole “Blue book dog” thing, we’ll remember it for evermore and suddenly find things to do when you come in.
  8. Don’t panic. You may find 35676 articles of interest when you do a preliminary search. Take a step back and assess these critically. Who are they by? When were they published? Is it really worth basing an entire argument around a sentence in a random book as opposed to three chapters published by somebody who is an established authority in this area?
  9. Databases are not infallible. Think about differences in spelling or punctuation. The old chestnuts of behavior / behaviour may apply. Try alternate spellings and don’t automatically presume your first result of 0 is the true state of affairs. And sometimes, if there’s a semi-colon or a colon somewhere, you may have to search via the author as the database may have written it differently to your reference.
  10. ENJOY! You are doing this from choice. You are writing this assignment on an angle of your choice. Choose something that interests you – because you’ll have to live with it until the deadline. And trust me, it’s no fun writing an article on something that bores the brain out of you.

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