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Using the Library for Research

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Vick Library WebsiteUsing the Library for Research


Each research topic is somewhat unique and requires the use of different kinds of sources. However, most library research projects have at least some elements in common. In this handout, you will be acquainted with a strategy that is useful for most research topics. This strategy includes four stages: reference works, monographs, periodical literature, and miscellaneous sources.


Reference Works

Reference works are an ideal place to begin your research because they provide easy access to information. Many reference sources are arranged in alphabetical order, are heavily indexed, or offer ready access through some other means.


Reference articles contain three elements that make them valuable at the beginning of the research process:


  • Definitions: Unlike many books, reference works do not usually assume that you understand your topic. As a result, reference articles often define key terms as soon as they introduce them.
  • Topic Summaries: An encyclopedia article's primary function is to provide an overview of the topic reflected in the title. After reading such an article you should have a sense of how broad or narrow the topic is, and how it can be subdivided.
  • Bibliography: Many reference articles conclude with references to sources for further reading--including other reference articles, books, and periodical articles. Since contributors to reference works are often experts within their respective fields, you can usually trust the sources they recommend.


Examples of reference works include dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, almanacs, and atlases. Most reference works in the Vick Library are shelved in a specific area known as the Reference Collection. These books cannot be checked out. You should consult both general works (e.g., Academic American Encyclopedia) and discipline-specific works (e.g., Gale Encyclopedia of Science, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Dictionary of Christianity in America).


General reference works are useful when you are trying to narrow down a broad topic, or when you don't know enough about a topic to select or make sense of an article in a subject-specific work. Specialized reference works provide deep coverage within a field. Contributors to such works are likely to be specialists in the topics assigned to them.

In order to locate reference articles on a particular topic, you should brainstorm about the fields of study into which it fits. Sometimes this is quite obvious: If you are looking for information on short-term missions, a dictionary of missions is a good place to start. On other occasions the situation is more complex. For example, if you are researching the subject of abortion, you could find coverage in reference works that deal with ethics, religion, medicine, family life, psychology, law, and other fields.




You may not be familiar with the word monograph. This term is used to refer to books that focus on one identifiable topic (monograph literally means "only writing"). Monographs make up most of a typical library’s collection. You will understand most monographs best if you take the time to read one or more reference articles first.


Monographs relevant to your topic can be found in several ways. First, the bibliographies found at the end of many reference articles will direct you to selected works on your topic. Second, you can search the Library’s online catalog. The online catalog allows you to search the Library’s holdings from many different access points. If you are unsure how a specific subject may be listed in the catalog, type in one or two words that describe it. Then pay attention to the subject headings listed on the records your search retrieves. If you need a book that the Library doesn’t have, fill out a Document Delivery Request form. The Library will attempt to borrow it from one of thousands of libraries worldwide.



Periodical Literature

Periodicals are publications that are issued on a fairly regular schedule and are intended to continue for an indefinite period of time. Common types of periodicals include magazines, journals, and newsletters. A related kind of publication, though not properly a periodical, is the newspaper. Most periodicals have the following features in common:


  • Frequent publication

  • Specific subject matter

  • Current information

  • Brief documents



There are hundreds of periodicals currently available in print and electronic formats. Since relevant articles might be found in any of dozens or even hundreds of different titles, finding information in periodicals requires the use of special skills. Under normal circumstances, the best way to locate periodical articles on a particular subject is to use indexes and abstracts. (Browsing through stacks of issues usually takes more time and yields fewer results.) Examples of periodical indexes include:


Academic Search Premier

ATLAS Religion Database with ATLASerials

Christian Periodical Index

Credo Reference

Education Full Text Database

Master File Elite

Oxford Reference Online

Religious & Theological Abstracts



Indexes and abstracts may be found in print and electronic formats. Indexes and abstracts contain citations that provide enough information to locate particular articles. Some periodical databases contain full-text articles. If the article you want is not available in electronic form, check the Library's catalog. Periodical holdings may be found in any of several formats: loose issues, bound volumes, microfiche, and microfilm. If the issue you need isn’t in the Library’s collection, you can fill out a Document Delivery Request form. A copy of your article can often be obtained from another library at little or no cost.



Miscellaneous Sources

Miscellaneous sources include a variety of print and non-print media such as government documents, audio-visual materials, dissertations, Internet documents, and manuscripts. There are different finding aids for each of these types of sources. If you are undertaking a major research project, you should search for non-traditional sources so as to make sure you’re not missing an important sector of information. You should also do so if you find few conventional sources on your topic.



A Final Word

The staff of the Vick Library looks forward to helping you with your research. We are here to serve your information needs. Your question is not an interruption--it is the main focus of our work! Please don’t hesitate to contact the Circulation/Information Desk for help.



Last Updated: August 14, 2007


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