Step 1: Get an overview of your topic

When you begin any information gathering process, you usually have a general idea of the topic you want to research. For instance, you know you are more interested in the subject of self-esteem in adolescents than you are in the area of schizophrenia – or vice versa. Obtaining background information on your subject can provide you with a context for your research and help you narrow your focus. Books can provide you with background information on a topic in a better way than journal articles. A book that is current can also serve as a source for additional references. Be aware that individual chapters in edited books usually focus on a specific aspect of a topic and can be used in the same way as a journal article.

There are two ways of locating books by topic in a library catalog: doing a keyword search and doing a subject search.

When you do a keyword search, the system looks in additional fields like the title or tables of contents to find words that match your search statement. Click here for more information on doing a keyword search.

When you do a subject search, the system limits you to predefined Library of Congress Subject Headings or Medical Subject Headings. Subject headings generally give you better search results, but you have to make sure to type in the correct subject heading. For more information please review the tutorial on searching by subject headings.

Doing a keyword search will always give you more titles than doing a subject search. Sometimes you will want to narrow your search results. You can do this by limiting.

Most online catalogs will use Boolean logic for keyword searching. Click here for more information on Boolean logic.

One way to search for books to provide an overview is to use the terms Encyclopedias or Handbooks as part of your keyword search. Not only do they offer a good place to start, they can provide a concise history or summary of topics and terms in your area. Looking at encyclopedias and handbooks can also help you to further refine your research.

Subject-specific dictionaries can be used to help you understand the terminology used in a particular discipline.

Annual Reviews are also a good source of background information. They are published in many disciplines and summarize trends and research in a particular subject area. Case Western Reserve University provides online access to several Annual Reviews. They can be accessed through the Research Databases section of the Library Catalog. Annual reviews can also be searched as keywords in the Library Catalog.

Once you have a better handle on your topic, you will need to define your research statement. This is covered in Step 2.