By Radiyah Chowdhury
Imagine this: It’s the beginning of the semester and you flip through your course syllabus, noticing with slight anxiety that someday you’ll have to write a research paper. Someday quickly becomes today and you find yourself staring at a blank Word document, wondering where to even begin.
Luckily for you, the answer is simple — begin at the library. Essay topics usually leave a lot of room for interpretation, and it can seem like a daunting task trying to compile sources that are both relevant and reliable.
But rest assured, there are a ton of great resources available and the best ones start at our very own library.
Julie Lavigne, legal studies librarian at Carleton’s MacOdrum Library, has a couple of tips for students working on research papers.
- Use the library’s Research Help Desk
The research help desk is a great place to start, and the good news here is you don’t have to physically go into the library to reap the benefits of the desk.
There are both librarians and subject specialists who work from that desk that have advanced expertise in pretty much any subject area you can think of.
The Research Help tab on the library’s website has a Self-Serve Help area filled with how-to guides, tutorials, and library help videos. It also has a live chat function where you can ask questions directly to a librarian and they’ll reply instantly (during library hours). You can email the desk for questions if you prefer, or give them a call. On that same page, all the specialists are named along with their phone numbers and emails. It’s a great way to reach out to someone with specific expertise on the subject you’re writing for.
- Use the subject guides on the library’s website
On the homepage of the MacOdrum Library website, there’s an area for ‘Research’ and right under that, ‘Subject Guides.’
Say you’re doing a research paper for a law course. You can go to the subject guide that’s tagged ‘Law’ and you’ll see specialized areas and then a more general approach to law. There are quick guides and detailed guides available, depending on what you’re looking for.
“It would give you … information that you would get if we were sitting here face-to-face talking but without [you] actually having to come in,” Lavigne explained.
- Don’t just use Google, use the Summon search on the library website
We all grew up with Google so it makes sense that it’s the first place we go when looking for research. But Lavigne advises students to take the search beyond Google, because a lot of the time the information you get is iffy and likely won’t be considered an academic source by your professor.
“If it’s just Joe Smith’s Roman Archeology website, as far as your professor is concerned, that’s going to count for very little,” Lavigne says. “You want your next step to be the library website.”
If you search in the summon search box right on the front page of the library website, it’ll search all the books in the library as well as documents, maps and journal articles. It serves the same purpose as Google but it’s restricted to academic sources — making it easier for you.
If you do use Google, always pay attention to who your sources are. Google Scholar is better for papers as it searches only scholarly articles.
- Learn the art of the search and narrow it down
Did you know that if you put a search word in quotation marks it means you’re searching for that exact phrase? For example, you can search Roman history and come up with thousands of results that pertain not only to roman history, but also to Romans and to history. This is because the default setting in most databases is to assume any space between words is considered an ‘and.’ So if you search “Roman history”(in quotation marks), it will search for that exact phrase and help you narrow your results.
Lavigne suggests that while you’re using summon search, you look to the options on the left. From there you can choose the type of source you want, whether it be scholarly and peer reviewed journal articles only or books only. Sometimes your professor will make specific requests, and this search tool to the left on the website will help you. The ‘discipline’ function is also helpful, because words can be used in different contexts. Say you wanted Roman history but only as it pertains to history and not to language or religion, you can make that choice.
- Seek help when you need it
“Don’t be afraid to ask,” Lavigne says. Even if you don’t think your problem can be solved at the library, Lavigne says many students are surprised at how many things are actually library related.
“Pretty much almost every single time [a student] starts with ‘I know this isn’t the library but…’ actually yeah, it is the library — and we can help you with that.”