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How to Research: Select a Search Tool

Just getting started on a research paper or project? Don't know where to start? This is the guide for you!

Select a Search Tool

The type of tool you use to search will change depending on the kind of information that you need.

Generally, you will find books and DVDs in the Library Catalogue, articles in an article database, and websites through a search engine.

However, there are sometimes exception to the rule; you may find articles listed in some library catalogues and you may find book chapters indexed in an article database.

Use the library catalogue to find:

  • books
  • DVDs
  • encyclopedias

Use an article database to find:

  • newspaper articles
  • magazine articles
  • journal articles

Use a search engine to find:

  • websites
  • blogs
  • podcasts

Understand Information

The type of information you need will change depending on the question you are trying to answer.

Information goes through a process as it moves from new discovery to established knowledge. This process is called the information cycle.

Once you know how information gets produced, it can help you to decide which sources to use when doing research.

The Information Cycle

It is important to understand the information cycle because it affects where you will find information on a particular topic.

For instance, information about AIDS is much further along in the cycle than information about Avian Flu, because it has been around for much longer. Therefore, there will be many more books and encyclopedia articles about AIDS than about Avian Flu.

Here is a timeline of how a story or event evolves through the media.  For example, think about where you get your information during and after an election:

Radio/TV/Internet... up to the minute or same day

Information on an event will likely appear here first, because it can be published quickly; however, it is not always detailed or accurate because people are anxious to get the information published as quickly as possible.

On the day of the actual election, you watch the results on TV, listen to them on the radio, or check them on the Internet.

Use a website:

  • to find current information
  • to find information about companies
  • to find information from all levels of government - federal to local
  • to find both expert and popular opinions

Newspapers...  at least by next day
Information usually appears here next, although generally not until a day after the event at the earliest because of their publication cycle. The information is usually a little more detailed and potentially more accurate than earlier sources.

The day after the election, you can read all the coverage in the newspapers.

Use a newspaper:

  • to find current information about international, national, and local events
  • to find editorials, commentaries, and expert, or popular opinions

Magazines...  weeks later
Information usually appears here a week to two weeks after an event. It will likely be more detailed than newspaper accounts.

Within the next couple of weeks, most of the weekly newsmagazines will also carry coverage of the election.

Use a magazine:

  • to find information or opinions about popular culture
  • to find up-to-date information about current events
  • to find general articles written for people who are not necessarily specialists in the topic area

Scholarly Journals...  months to years later
Research by the experts and analysis of an event usually appears here six months to a year after an event, both because of the time it takes scholars to do the work and because these publications appear less frequently, sometimes only four times a year.

Use a journal:

  • when doing scholarly research
  • to find out what has been studied on your topic
  • to find bibliographies that point to other relevant research

Books...  years later
Quality information usually takes a year to two years to appear in book form (not counting “unauthorized accounts”), because of the length of time required to research and write a work of this length, and because it takes quite a bit of time to publish.

It will take several months to years before political scientists study what happened in the election and write about it in scholarly journals and books.

Use a book:

  • when looking for a lot of information on a topic
  • to put your topic in context with other important issues
  • to find historical information
  • to find summaries of research to support an argument

Reference Books...  years later
Information usually takes quite a while to appear here, partly because these sources often wait for knowledge to become fairly well-established before acknowledging it, and partly because they’re only published once every several years.

It may take several years before the encyclopedia records the most recent Prime Minister of Canada.

Use a reference book:

  • when looking for background information on a topic
  • when trying to find key ideas, important dates or concepts