CONDUCTING LIBRARY RESEARCH:  Identifying Possible Sources


The Reference Collection

With a research topic in mind, you already have some idea of the kinds of source materials you will need.  You may be thinking about books and journal articles, but what should they be about?  You should think about your topic broadly to determine both its parts and how it fits in with the particular discipline and with other disciplines.  As you begin to read about your topic, you may find that there are aspects that had not occurred to you and necessary materials that you hadn't imagined.  To get an initial feel for the scope of your topic and the way it relates to the broader discipline, you should review the reference collection for your subject area.  Reference books can help you get a clearer picture of your topic area.  They also can help you begin to identify the materials that will prove useful in researching your topic.  Consult the subject pages for Art Education, or other subjects you are interested in for listings of library reference sources.

Determine the appropriate areas of the reference collection to browse by consulting the LC Classification system or ask at a reference desk.  For any subject area, you may expect to find some of these kinds of reference sources.

Guides to reference sources are books that list the most important reference sources for a given subject area.  Philosophy, music, art, linguistics, literature, education, sociology, classical studies, and popular culture are among the subjects for which there are such guides. 

Companions, encyclopedias, handbooks, and guides can give you a better sense of the boundaries of a field, its branches, and how it relates to other fields.  Companion books often are issued for specific topics or individuals, and many of them will be available for checkout from the stacks.  Examples are ABC-Clio Companion to Women's Progress in America and The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Art.  Subject encyclopedias are similar to the general encyclopedias we all know, but these cover only a particular field.  Art, philosophy, psychology, science and technology, and women's studies are among the fields for which the Libraries’ reference collections have encyclopedias.  In some cases a work may be called a dictionary rather than an encyclopedia, such as The Dictionary of Art.  Handbooks and guides often include the terminology, formulas, rules, directions, and best practices of an applied field (mathematics, engineering, education, law), but others may provide definitions and identifying features needed to understand a field.  

Biographical sources may provide brief entries on individuals (as do the Who's Who books) or substantial articles covering the work and influence of a person.  Subject encyclopedias and companions will often include entries for individuals.  To locate biographical information beyond the materials in your subject's reference collection, consult Biography and Genealogy Master Index in print or online from the Libraries’ E-Resources List.   

Bibliographies can provide a jump-start to your research because they give you citations to sources on the topic of the bibliography.  Many will include annotations.  While bibliographies can quickly become dated, don't overlook the value of an historical perspective.

Chronologies and histories may be important for some topics, especially if you need to understand developments over time. 

Statistical sources are available in some subject areas.  There are general sources that offer a variety of statistics from a country or region.   Others provide historical statistics, while there are sources that focus on a population group or business segment.  Statistical Record of Women Worldwide is one such title.

Directories that list organizations related to a field can provide contacts for work on current topics.  There is a general listing of organizations kept at various reference desks, Encyclopedia of Associations (also available online as part of Associations Unlimited). It also lists the publications issued by an organization.  Other directories include American Art Directory and Directory of Women's Studies Programs and Library Resources.

Indexes to the literature of a field were long just another set of volumes on a library's shelves.  Now many are available online, as we shall discuss shortly.  Indexes normally cover periodical (journal, magazine, and newspaper) titles, but some also include books and dissertations (and are sometimes called bibliographies). 

Not all reference titles are located in reference collections, and not all will include subject headings that identify them as such.  (Companion books will often have no distinguishing subject headings.)  Browse the appropriate section of the reference collection.  Then, to locate additional reference materials in the online catalog, try using these terms in a keyword search for LC Subj Heading:  dictionaries, encyclopedias, biography, bibliography, indexes.  Or include a keyword search for Title: dictionary, chronology, companion.  For example, you might construct these searches:  Keywords Anywhere: art and LC Subj Heading: encyclopedias or Keywords Anywhere: women and Title:companion.                                      

Practice Activities

1. Consider the various aspects of your topic. Referring to the LC Classification, what call number areas might you usefully browse to find materials?

2. Using the online catalog, find three reference sources that would provide background information or research material for your topic.

Electronic Databases

A variety of electronic products are marketed today, and the PSU Libraries are adding to their electronic holdings annually.  Some of these are indexes to information (books, articles, book reviews, statistics), while others provide the information itself (full-text sources).  Databases are listed alphabetically on the Libraries’ E-Resource List.

Dictionaries and encyclopedias provided electronically normally include hyperlinks that let you jump from bits of related information and sometimes to web-sites of interest.  From the Libraries’ E-Resource List, you can access the OED Online (Oxford English Dictionary) and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Other reference sources available online include statistical sources like STAT-USA and Statistical Universe.  Both provide at least some full-text.  Associations Unlimited provides information about regional, national and international organizations.

Electronic journal packages are a good start towards the "virtual library."  Often these are produced by publishers and provide access to their journals only.  Others are provided by journal vendors, and still others are special projects of academic institutions.  Normally, you have access to the entire editorial contents of a journal issue, including the table of contents.  Most have a search engine, though the sophistication of the engines varies greatly.  Articles are in PDF format and can be printed or downloaded.  Electronic journal packages come in several varieties.

Bibliographic databases are used by libraries to do their cataloging and to facilitate interlibrary loan.  WorldCat, one of the FirstSearch collection of databases, is the public access version of a bibliographic database used by libraries around the world.  These databases provide basic bibliographic information, as well as a physical description and subject headings, for books, journals, music, maps, media, and, recently, materials in electronic format.  WorldCat also gives you a listing of libraries that own an item. For extensive research projects, WorldCat is indispensable.

Periodical indexes at their most basic are simply electronic versions of standard paper indexes located in reference collections.  Normally, the time period covered by an electronic index won't extend as far back as the paper (because earlier volumes were not produced from electronic files), though some indexes have converted entire runs.  Unlike their print counterparts, these electronic indexes allow keyword searching of authors, titles, and source publications in addition to subject searching.  Electronic periodical indexes differ in a number of ways.

Selecting a Database or Index

Your preliminary reading on your topic should give you some ideas about the fields that must be searched for a thorough review of the pertinent literature.  Your focus may be so narrow that only one or two disciplines' literatures will be applicable.  Or your topic may be so interdisciplinary that you will need to search a number of subject-specific indexes as well as those with more general coverage.  You may be looking for particular kinds of materials.  If you want books, journals, newspapers, or dissertations, that will also be a factor in choosing a database.

During your browse of the reference collection for your topic area, you may have discovered paper indexes to the literature of the related discipline.  You should determine whether there is electronic access to that index.  You should also check any guides to the reference literature of that discipline (also located on the reference shelves), consult subject web pages on the Libraries’ web site, and ask the librarians at the reference desk.

The electronic indexes provided on the Libraries’ E-Resource List are also grouped by subject.  These groupings are the first place to look to find appropriate electronic indexes for your topic.  Descriptions of these databases are available from the E-Resource List page.

Be sure to determine the coverage of any database you decide to search.  That information will usually be available at a link from the front page of the database   Look around; the link may be a cryptic icon.  All databases should provide this basic information:

Time period covered:  If you're trying to get a contemporaneous feel for an historical event, the electronic index may not have adequate coverage.

Subject areas covered:  You may be surprised at how broadly some subjects are defined by database producers.  You may find useful materials indexed in unexpected places.

Types of materials indexed:  If you are only interested in finding journal articles on your topic, you will want to know whether books, dissertations, reports, or conference proceedings are included in the database.   Often, you can limit your search results to a particular type of material.  Or you may need an index that covers only a particular type.

List of journals indexed:  A database may include a list of the publications it indexes along with the years covered for each title and, if applicable, whether there is full-text available.  This can be particularly useful if there are key titles that you want to be certain to search.

Inclusion of abstracts or full-text:  In addition to bibliographic citations, a database may include an abstract or summary for an entry.  Sometimes, there may be the full-text of the article (without any graphics) or a link to the journal article (page images).

Updating frequency:  It is useful to know how often a database is updated, especially if you are interested in including recent materials in your search.

Practice Activities

1. Referring to the subject listing of databases, identify three databases that might be useful for your research project.

2. For each of the databases you have selected, determine the coverage of subjects, time period, and types of material included or indexed.