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Insider's Guide to the CCA Libraries: How to do Research at the Library

Developing a research topic

Do you have an assignment to write a research paper but you’re not sure where to start? Take a deep breath and begin with the assignment requirements. Before you can even begin your research, you need to read the assignment instructions carefully – more than once! This will help you understand the work you need to do. Highlight topic guidelines, required length, and the types of information sources allowed. Once you feel comfortable with the assignment guidelines, you'll be ready to make some choices about picking a topic.

So, what makes a good topic?

  • It interests you! If you're excited about your topic you'll do a better job
  • It meets the requirements of your assignment
  • It’s broad enough to give you a sufficient amount of resources
  • It’s focused enough that you’re not overwhelmed with information

Too Broad vs. Too Narrow

Develop your topic based on your information needs: how much? what scope? Its good to focus on the required length of your assignment when determining if your topic is too broad, or too narrow. Can you write about the all the artists involved in the WPA Art Recovery Project in 5 pages? Probably not.

A 5 page research paper doesn't require dozens of books and articles, so narrowing your topic will help you to avoid getting overwhelmed with information. A 20 page paper, however, does require a significant amount of information resources. Can you write a 20 page paper on an artist with only a single paragraph mention in a book? Again, probably not. In this situation, broadening your topic will help you to avoid struggling to find information.


  • If you are finding too much information and too many sources, narrow your topic. 
  • Finding too little information may indicate that you need to broaden your topic by using more inclusive concepts or terms

Defining your Research Question...

What's the difference between a research topic and a research question?

Your research topic reflects the area(s) of interest you want to investigate. Let's say your area of interest is Impressionism. You choose Impressionist exhibition practices as your research topic. But what's important about Impressionist exhibition practices? Your research question is a specific query about the topic you've chosen, that your research is going to uniquely answer. The perfect research question is one that hasn't been asked yet. Without a research question guiding your work, you could end up summarizing what other people have said about your topic, rather then using your unique perspective to analyze and answer the query.


Transforming your research topic into a research question:

  • What would you like to investigate about your topic? Which aspects? Why?
  • Are there any problems or issues that stick with you? Why?
  • Are there unresolved dilemmas in the existing research that you may have come across?
  • Which of these dilemmas / problems would be worth pursuing? Why?
  • How is your research going to be different from previous findings, i.e. in its specific approach, in the aspect(s) of the topic explored or in the theories applied?


Once you’ve established your research topic, you need to get familiar with it by doing some reading. Start with more general sources and then work up to more specific and detailed sources. Where you go next depends on the scope of your research.

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Where to look: Reference Sources

A reference source is a fancy way of saying "a source that will give you background information." Encyclopedias and dictionaries will help you understand the broader context of your research and tell you in general terms what is known about your topic. Reference sources are also a great way to find out about important people, events and related dates to further your research. Don't know anything about Impressionism? Oxford Art Online will provide you with an overview of this artistic movement--who were the participating artists, when was theses artists active, and important works of Impression--will all be covered in the encyclopedia entry for Impressionism.

Encyclopedia Britannica » 

The complete academic encyclopedia, related articles, images, and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

Oxford Art Online » 

The full-text of Grove Dictionary of Art and The Oxford Companion to Western Art, with thousands of images and continuously updated articles on major artists, periods, and styles.

Oxford English Dictionary » 

A guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words from across the English-speaking world.

Where to look: Books (Monographs vs. Anthologies)

The difference between a monograph and an anthology is an important distinction to understand when selecting a book for your research. A monograph is a detailed, thorough study of a single specialized subject. An anthology--in the context of scholarly research--is usually a collection of essays or articles organized together through the curation of an editor. Anthologies may be helpful if you want a variety of resources or perspectives on a particular topic, as each essay in an anthology is understood as a singular source with a narrow focus like an academic journal article. Monographs will have a broader focus and reflect extensive research. 

Where to look: Catalogue raisonné

The term catalogue raisonné, meaning "reasoned catalogue" in French, is a comprehensive, annotated listing of all the known artworks by an artist either in a particular medium or all media. The works are described and their provenance is detailed. Most catalogue raisonnés will also include a biography of the artist and a bibliography of published materials that refer to either the artist, or their artwork.  

Where to look: Scholarly Journals

As opposed to books (monographs), articles written for scholarly journals can explore specific topics, events and artwork  in-depth through a narrower research focus. Scholarly or peer-reviewed articles are written by experts in academic or professional fields. They are excellent sources for finding out what has been previously studied or researched on a topic, as well as to find bibliographies that point to other relevant sources of information.

Where to look: News Journalism


Newspapers are a great resource to gather primary sources for your research.  Newspapers provide direct firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art and enable researchers to get as close as possible to what actually happened during a particular event or time period.

Where to look: Video and Audio


Don't limit your research to text-only sources. With the advent of broadcast journalism, interviews and eye-witness accounts may be available in the form of video or audio-file. Documentary films can also provide important information in the form of interviews. Additionally, lectures delivered by scholars can now be easily accessed through Youtube, Vimeo and other video streaming services. 

Selecting sources: read the Abstract or Introduction

What is an abstract? An abstract is a brief summary that describes a larger work. An abstract may contain the scope, purpose, results, and contents of the work, as well as the thesis, background, and conclusions. But keep in mind, the abstract is not a review, and it does not evaluate the quality of the work for you.

Most scholarly articles will include an abstract at the top of the article in the case of print resources, or the abstract may be accessible through the database record in the case of digital copies. Similarly, most books begin with an introduction. Both abstracts and introductory chapters are a great way to determine if you've found the right resource for your research, because the author will tell the reader about 1) the focus of their work and 2) the method of analysis, or theoretical perspective used in their research.  

Selecting sources: read through the Index

What is an index? An index is a list of words, phrases or topics with corresponding page numbers that indicate where related information can be found in the book. Usually found at the back-of-the-book, the index will include names of people, places and events, and concepts selected by a person as being relevant and of interest to a possible reader of the book. 

The index of a book is great way to determine if the topic your interested in will be covered--and what kind of coverage you get--in a book that might be helpful to your research. For example, if you're looking for information on Picasso, you can look in the index of a book to see how many times he is mentioned in the book. If Picasso is only mentioned on a few pages throughout the book, this may not be a helpful resource.

Selecting sources: read Footnotes and Bibliography

Scholars must cite their research sources either through footnotes, or a bibliography. If a chapter in a book, or an article relates to your research interests, check out where the author got their information! This can be a great way to find additional resources, or to determine what else has been written about your topic.

Selecting sources: read the Literature Review

Oftentimes there are scholarly articles devoted entirely to providing an overview of available research materials in a specific field, or topic. This is usually referred to as a literature review. Literature reviews can be helpful to your research, because you can get a sense of what has already been said, or what types of methods have been used to study your topic. Once you know what research currently exists on you topic, it may be easier for you to see gaps or missing links that your research could fill.

Selecting sources: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

primary source is a document which was created contemporaneously (during the same time) as the event, or era you are studying. These sources were present during an experience or time period and therefore offer an inside view of a particular event. A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. A newspaper article covering the first Impressionist  exhibit written in 1874 is a primary source, whereas a scholarly article about the first Impressionist exhibit written in 1997 by an art historian, such as Griselda Pollock, is a secondary source. 

Check out the Information Literacy Tutorial on Primary & Secondary Sources

Evaluating Sources of Information

After finding potential sources of information, you need to evaluate them to see if they are worthwhile for your research assignment. Consider the following:

  • Accuracy: Is the information correct? Can you verify the facts somewhere else? Does the source cite other sources that you can check? Is the information supported by enough evidence?
  • Authority: What are the credentials of the author, the publication? Are they an expert? Are they trustworthy?
  • Audience: For what audience is the source intended? Is it at the appropriate level? Is it an academic or popular source? Can you understand it?
  • Objectivity: Is the author impartial or is there evidence of bias? Does the author have a personal interest in the subject? Is the piece based on opinion or fact?
  • Currency: When was the source published? Is it up-to-date? Is it too old?

Evaluating Web Sources

It's especially important to evaluate websites since anyone can publish information on the Web. Look for the following:

  • Does the web page indicate when it was last updated?
  • Do you know who wrote the page? Can you find any information out about this author?
  • Does the page come from a reliable source (i.e. a major news site, the government, etc.)?
  • Do the links on the page work or are they broken?
  • Is there an "about" page that gives information about the organization providing the information?
  • What is the domain of the URL? (.gov, .edu, .org, .com, etc.)

Evaluating Web Pages: Questions to Ask & Strategies for Getting the Answers is a great resource from UC Berkeley!