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Mellon Mays Guide to Research - Archive

Some research basics to help you get started.

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Art Appreciation Class

Art Appreciation Class

Introduction and Types of Sources


If you are new to the humanities, you may find it a little odd to conduct research without performing your own experiments or collecting data. Humanities research is all about delving deeply into a topic, finding original sources, evaluating secondary sources, and coming to your own conclusions as a result.

Let’s start with the types of resources you will be using, usually divided into primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

  • Primary sources are original material, created at the time of the event or by the subject you are studying. They may include personal letters, autobiographies, original works of art, newspaper accounts of an event as it happened, field notes, and many other examples. This kind of material is the closest you can get to your actual subject, unfiltered by later scholars and critics.

  • Secondary sources are works that analyze the primary sources, such as journal articles, monographs about a subject or person, or critical reviews. All of these can also act as primary sources, depending upon your subject. For instance, if your paper is about the history of criticism of an artist, the reviews will then be primary sources. But, if your topic is the artist’s work itself, the reviews will be secondary sources.

  • Tertiary sources index or otherwise collect primary and secondary sources. Examples are encyclopedias, bibliographies, dictionaries, and online indices. These sources tend to be most useful as jumping off points for your research, leading you to the more in-depth secondary and primary material that you will need to conduct a thorough study.



Getting Started

Determining Your Topic:

The first thing you will need to do, of course, is come up with a research topic. You may already have a very specific topic in mind, or you may have a general idea of what interests you. In either case, it can be enough to begin your research. Very often you will find that your research will mold your topic and you may end up writing about something you had never even considered in the beginning!

If you’re having trouble coming up with a topic, think about what has interested you most in your class so far. What would you like to know more about? Maybe you have a few ideas and can’t narrow it down. That’s ok. You’ll be guided by your research. Perhaps you want to write about I. M. Pei but can’t possibly include every building he’s designed. Start by looking at general books about him and decide what buildings both interest you and have attracted scholarly or critical attention. Then you can begin researching the specific buildings. You may want to consult with your professor or teaching assistant for help in formulating your topic. Your subject librarian will also be happy to talk over your topic with you and give you suggestions.

Using Keywords:

Often, the best way to start searching is to use keywords: those words that describe the topic in your mind. You can start off with the search box at the top of the library homepage, known as the Discovery Tool, and try a Google-like search of words that seem to fit. It’s usually best to start off with a general search – don’t use too many words that will limit your options. You can narrow down your focus as you go along.

Let’s try this keyword search: Shakespeare Merchant Venice. The search box will automatically assume you mean “and” between each of these words and will search them together.

Our preliminary results look like this:





Finding Books, DVDs and other material:

On the left, we have 347 Books & More listed. On the right, we have 13,094 Articles & More. A lot more than you wanted, right? So, let’s start with the Books side and click on Filter at the upper right.




Narrowing your search:


Now we can narrow down our results list. At the right, you see some of the ways you can do this. For instance, you can click on Shakespeare as an author and get his original works. These would be primary sources. You could also click on one of the other authors and get their criticism of his work. These would be secondary sources. One of the results that isn’t shown on this particular screenshot is an annotated bibliography. This would be a tertiary source – and a good place to start to find out who has written about this play and how their work has been received.

Maybe you want to write about a more focused topic concerning The Merchant of Venice. Look at the top of the page at Suggested Topics Within Your Search. Here are some Library of Congress subject headings that have been applied to the work. LC subject headings are added by librarians who create the catalog records for the books. They are a way of standardizing book descriptions so that you can find similar books on the same topic, even though your keywords might not apply to all. So, for instance, if you’re interested in the way Jews are portrayed in literature, you can click on that link and find just the books that deal with this topic within The Merchant of Venice – there are twenty-five listed. If you want to research the topic of Jews in Literature beyond this particular play, you could start over with a new search on this phrase and change your type of search to Books by Subject or Articles by Subject and get all the results (for books alone, these total 1136).


Finding Journal Articles:

Now, let’s go back to our original beginning search on Shakespeare Merchant Venice and look at the Articles & More side of the results page:



On the right, you can see many ways to narrow down this search. It’s very likely you’ll only want scholarly journals, for instance, so you can click on Limit to articles from scholarly journals. You might want to weed out all the newspaper articles. Or maybe you can read only English and so want to weed out the foreign language works. Clicking on various limiters can go a long way in bringing your search results list down to a manageable level. When you find an article that looks good, in most cases you will be able to click on a link and read the full text immediately. Please note, however, that the articles that turn up here are NOT all the articles that have been written on your subject or even all the articles that we have in the Brown library. Articles that are available only in print will not be indexed here, nor will all journals. If you want to do a truly comprehensive search, you must also use the subject databases, discussed in a subsequent section.

Search Tips and Tricks

Other ways to narrow your search:

Even with the various limiters available in the results list, it can still be difficult to figure out which sources are truly helpful. Some things to keep in mind: annotated bibliographies can help you figure out who the important scholars are in any field. You will also find that, as you start reading the books and articles, certain scholars’ names will come up again and again, both in the text and in the footnotes and bibliographies. These will almost certainly be the important authorities on their subjects. Bibliographies in books are a great resource that is often overlooked. An earlier scholar has already done a lot of research on this topic and is offering it to you for free! Be sure to make use of it. If you’re researching a particular person, it’s always good to read anything that he or she has written or look at any works that he or she has created.

Usually, a humanities research paper will require you to use scholarly resources. These are articles that have been published in refereed journals and therefore accepted by the scholarly community. A scholar will have submitted his or her paper to the journal where it was read by peers, suggestions were made, the paper was revised, and finally accepted as a work that lives up to the scholarly standards of that discipline. The library search results list for Articles & More will have a limiter you can use to restrict your results to only scholarly works. You will also find scholarly works in the various subject databases.

Depending on your topic, you may find that it’s also useful to use popular magazines and newspapers. For instance, if you are researching how the public has reacted to classical music in the 20th century, you may wish to include contemporary articles from magazines such as Life or Time, as well as articles from scholarly journals that analyze the history. But, be careful to use popular sources appropriately. If you’re doing a literature search of the scholarship on a subject, popular magazines are not the kind of material you will want to use.

Using Google:

Is Google OK to use? This really depends on your topic. Sometimes, especially for contemporary events, Google can be a great, if overwhelming, source of information. But you really have to be careful. Note who is responsible for the information on the website. Do they cite where their facts came from? If they do give citations, you should consider following up on these and reading the original articles yourself. A website can look scholarly and yet really not be what it seems at all. When you use library databases, you are using resources that have already been vetted. You don't have to worry over whether an article is considered scholarly or not - it's already been done for you by experts. When in doubt, feel free to ask a librarian what he or she think of the online source you've found. If you do use Google, it's probably best to start with Google Scholar rather than the ordinary search engine, and use the advanced search page so that you can limit as much as possible (for instance, you may want to limit your search to sites with the domain .edu or .gov - although these are certainly not guarantees that the sites will be reliable). Click on the arrow to the right of the search box to get to the advanced search page.

For a more detailed discussion about Google and other search engines, please see the Search Engines section of this research guide's home page.

Subject Databases

Are the articles and books listed in the library search tool the only ones out there? Not at all! It’s important to remember that the list of results will not include journals that are available only in print and may also not include many journals that we don’t have in the Brown library. So, you may miss some important works by only looking there. This is where library subject guides come in.

On the main library page, under Get Help, you’ll see a pop-up list called Pick a Guide. There’s a guide for every subject area. For your Shakespeare search, you may want to try the English guide, but also perhaps the History (British) guide. Each guide will list the most useful databases for that particular subject area and you will also find a link to your Subject Librarian, whom you can contact for research help, whether it’s a simple question or an in-depth research consultation. Subject librarians love working with students, so don't be afraid to contact them.

Obtaining Materials from Other Libraries

It’s hard to believe, but you may find that Brown doesn’t have everything you need on a topic. Not to worry! Interlibrary Loan is always an option. If the book you need is checked out, or you come across a book in your research that you want to read but we don’t have it, try looking for it in Worldcat. This is the nation’s catalog of just about every book published. You can also use Worldcat to conduct additional subject searches just to see what’s out there. If you find a book you want, all you have to do is click on Request This Item and if it’s at all available, the book will be sent to you. The link for Worldcat is found on the main library page at the upper right.

But, what if it’s a journal article you need? If you didn’t already see a Request This link in the database you were searching, you can open your own ILLiad account and request the article through that. Generally, you will receive a pdf of the article through your ILLiad account. Very convenient! This only works for journal articles that we don't have in the library. If we have it, you'll be expected to come get it yourself.

For more information on requesting books and articles from other libraries, please see the Need More? section of this subject guide's Using the Catalog tab.

Writing the Paper and Avoiding Plagiarism

Now that you’ve begun your research, you will begin to get an idea of what you really want to write about. You may have narrowed or broadened your focus. You should always be flexible when conducting a research project – that’s part of the fun of research!

Wrangling those citations:

Be sure to keep track of your sources. To do this, you may wish to use a Citation Manager such as RefWorks, Zotero, Mendeley, or Endnote. As you take notes, always include a reference to where you found the information. In your paper, this will be expressed as a footnote or endnote. Citations are to be used not only for direct quotes but for all statements that are not a product of your own original thought or general knowledge. This is important, both for intellectual integrity and as a means of allowing your reader to track down your resources if he or she wishes and follow how you came to the conclusions that you did. Humanities papers usually use either the MLA or Chicago style manuals.

Organizing the paper:

Many people find it useful to write an outline of the paper first to help organize their thoughts and keep to a logical order. The format of your paper will consist of an introduction (generally one paragraph) in which you will state your thesis and describe how you will present it within the body of the paper. The body will consist of the tenets of your thesis, laid out in a logical manner. You may wish to begin the body with some background information about your subject in order to put your thesis in context. At the end of the paper, you will write a conclusion that sums up your thesis and your final thoughts on the topic.

Getting writing help:

If you find yourself struggling with the writing part, please don’t hesitate to contact the Writing Center. Here you can request an appointment with a graduate student from your area of study, who will go over your paper with you and advise you on any problems or questions that you may have. And, if at any point, you find that your research has stalled, contact a subject librarian who will help you get back on track again.

For more detailed information please see the Citations/Copyright tab of this subject guide.

Humanities Librarians