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Section 1.1 Essentials

The word “research” can seem daunting, but doing independent research can be some of the most exciting work you'll do in college.

Collins Library provides access to rich collections, engaging learning environments, innovative instruction, and high-quality service in support of the university's mission of teaching, learning, civic engagement, and diversity. We encourage you to familiarize yourself early on with the scope of materials and the types of services available to you in an academic library, as they may differ markedly from those available in most school and public libraries. Collins Library works in close partnership with the faculty and other campus departments to support your development as a scholar.

Knowing that Collins Library is there to help you is the first step, but you'll also need to get going on your own. Here are some guidelines that will help you not only do research successfully but enjoy doing it.

The first thing to know is that Collins Memorial Library is a university library and is probably a bit different than other libraries you've encountered in the past. This is because it's designed for people like yourself who are doing research, more than for people who are looking for a book to read or a movie to watch at home (though Collins Library has those things, too!).

Pick a topic that interests you

Many times, there will be a topic that your professor has talked about a lot in class. Some of these topics may be straight forward and obvious, while others might seem more obscure and difficult to tackle but more interesting to you. Always choose the one you're most interested in. No matter how easy a project seems to be from the beginning, if it doesn't interest you, the research process will feel slow and painful. If, instead, you choose a topic that actually grabs your attention, the process of sifting through and evaluating dozens of articles and books won't feel tedious at all, and you'll have more energy to devote to thinking and rethinking your research question.

Find the right search tools

Primo—the search engine that shows up first when you click on the Collins Library website—may seem like it has every source you could possibly need. While Primo can be very helpful, there are more than 200 other databases to which the library provides access. Each of these databases is specifically catered to a particular topic (or topics), which means that you won't find as many unrelated articles as you would in Primo. For the same reason, you may also find sources more pertinent to your research topic by using more specific databases. To figure out which database you need, try checking out research and course guides. If you're undertaking interdisciplinary research, you'll likely want to search more than one database.

Use your library course or subject guide

The research and subject guides are created by the research librarians for you to use. They have a lot of great information that can be very helpful for you in your research process. For instance, they can help you figure out whether your source is scholarly or popular, and whether it's primary, secondary, or tertiary. They also can point you to which databases you should be using and give you tips on how to use them. If you get stuck in your process, the course guides also have the contact information of the liaison librarian working with your class, as well as that of the peer research advisor.

Get help

There are people whose job it is to help you make the best out of your research paper—use them! The liaison librarians and peer research advisor love when students ask them for help. All of their contact information is available on the library website, so you can call or email them to make an appointment or ask a question. The peer research advisor also has drop-in hours in the library after normal business hours, so you can still get help later in the evening. In addition, Collins Library participates in a 24/7 chat service that is staffed by librarians around the world. Whether you're just starting to think of a topic or nearing the end of your process, the librarians and peer research advisor can get you the help you need.

Start early

You never know exactly how long your research project is going to take, but chances are it's going to take a lot longer than you think. The first sources you find won't always be the most helpful, so it's important to take your time with the search. Also, your question will change from when you first begin, so make sure you allow yourself enough time to get that second or third round of research done, as well.

If you find a really great book through SUMMIT or ILLiad, remember that it can take up to ten business days to get to you, so it's important to account for that in your timeline.

Don't give up

Research can be a long process. Finding the best sources for your project can take weeks, months, or even a full semester! Sometimes, you will hit a roadblock and then feel like you have to go all the way back to square one. That's okay, because research is meant to be a cyclical process (see Section 4.7). Even when it feels like you are starting over, you are still learning more and more about your topic, which will result in a very well-researched final paper!

Research is a creative, recursive process, and it's likely that you'll encounter dozens of potentially relevant sources. It's easy to get overwhelmed, but here are two surefire strategies for handling information overload:

  • Consider learning how to use a knowledge-management tool. Collins Library supports RefWorks and Zotero, and any librarian would be more than happy to help you get started. These tools do so much more than just format citations; they let you organize and reorganize your sources as your research question develops, and they support extensive note-taking.

  • Your research assignment prompt likely will indicate what kinds of (and often how many) sources you should aim for. But a source is not a source is not a source! How are you using sources? Take things one step further by analyzing precisely how you will use each source when building your argument so that you're able to use your sources in the most appropriate way. One helpful framework is Joseph Bizup's BEAM model. BEAM is an acronym intended to help us think about the various ways we use sources when writing a researched argument. Understanding how you're using a source is essential to using it correctly and effectively.


You use tertiary sources (subject encyclopedias, textbooks, overviews) to establish basic facts and definitions.


You analyze and interpret primary sources, a dataset, or another phenomenon of study.


You evaluate and assess the arguments in academic secondary sources as a way to join the scholarly conversation.


You use theories or disciplinary approaches when examining your topic.

Though writing in high school consists mostly of “background” sources, most research writing that you do in college will be stronger if you use sources in a combination of most or all of these ways.