Guiding Research Papers: Developing a Search Strategy

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Categories: Working with Student Writing

By Diane Matlock, English

A search strategy is a systematic plan for tracking down sources. No single search strategy works for every topic. For some topics, it may be appropriate to search for information in newspapers, magazines, and websites. For others, the best sources may be found in scholarly journals, books, and specialized reference works. Still other topics might be enhanced by field research, such as interviews, surveys, or direct observation.

Things to consider: You want to think about what will make the most interesting and effective evidence for your argument. Will you need primary sources, secondary sources, or both? Often what constitutes a primary or secondary source will depend on your purpose or field.

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during a historical event or time period. A primary source reflects the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. (Examples of primary sources include diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts, memoirs, autobiographies, records of or information collected by government agencies, records of organizations, published materials written at the time about a particular event — books, magazine and journal articles, newspaper articles — photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures, video recordings, materials that document the attitudes and popular thought of a historical time period — public opinion polls, mass media, literature, film, popular fiction, textbooks — research data, artifacts.)

Some primary sources, such as diaries or letters, are original manuscripts which exist in only one place in the world. Others, such as newspaper articles or transcripts of speeches, exist in multiple copies but may be hard to find. You can look for reprinted primary sources.

A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon. It is generally at least one step removed from the event.

What kind of sources does the assignment require? How current do your sources need to be? Do you need to consult sources contemporary with an event or a person’s life? How many sources should you consult?

If you have not already done so, attend a library orientation session to find out how to use UC Berkeley libraries, search engines, and resources. You want to know how to use the various online library catalogs and what special collections are available here at UC Berkeley. You should also take advantage of the wonderful and unique collection of resources at the Bancroft Library. [LINK]

Finding Sources

One reason for doing research is to find information, data, and evidence bearing on a problem — the raw material of primary sources that become either support for your argument or the object of analytical scrutiny. The other reason for doing research is so you can place your argument in conversation with other scholars who have written on the topic — previous and contemporary scholars with whom you will agree or disagree. In other words, you need to understand the critical context for your argument. In addition, by reading secondary sources, you can examine how scholars in different disciplines use their sources.

To begin finding sources:

  • Identify key participants, dates, and publications associated with your topic (for example, you can look at reports, newsletters, magazines, and pamphlets that were produced in conjunction with the event or developments you are researching)
  • Search by subject (Library of Congress Library Subject Headings)
  • Look up people, organizations, and agencies as authors
  • Identify contemporary books from the era
  • Use periodical and newspaper indexes from the time period
  • Go to special collections of primary source material (look at the Bancroft materials online)
  • Find popular fiction, movies, television from the time period
  • Find public opinion polls from the period
  • Use indexes to government documents
  • Look at the bibliography of the secondary sources you examine

If you are having trouble finding sources or need help with your research process, you can get help at the Library. [LINK]