Research Tips
The Information Search

When doing research for a paper or other assignment, you have a variety of resources at hand. Here are a tips to help you use those resources and do your project right the first time.

1. Professors

There are many ways to begin research for a paper or assignment for a course. The most important resource is your professor. Does he/she include a bibliography in the syllabus? Check out the works listed. Ask questions. Write down works quoted in class, etc.

2. Reference Collection

For a quick overview of specific subjects, check out encyclopaedia articles. This is an excellent start to any research project. Reference works give a brief overview of your subject enabling you to focus your topic. It is an excellent way to find a list of standard works for you topic. Most encyclopaedia articles contain a brief bibliography at the end of the article. Look up words unfamiliar to you in a dictionary. There are many theological dictionaries as well as subject dictionaries in philosophy, ethics, etc.

3. Library Catalogue

Once you have a handle on your subject, you may use the library catalogue to develop your resources. Author - Often an author will write more than one book on a certain subject. You may use the author to look up any other books he/she has written relevant to your topic.

  • Title: Although librarians do not advocate looking for a subject through the title catalogue, sometimes it works. However, it's not a very efficient way to use the catalogue.
  • Keyword: Keyword searching is an easy way to locate material. However, sometimes you will get too many hits. Use the expanded search screen and try to limit your keyword search by combining it with either another keyword, author, or title.
  • Subject: The library uses the Library of Congress Subject Headings as a tool to apply uniform subject headings. If you are having trouble locating the heading for a particular topic, please ask for assistance in using the Library of Congress Subject Heading Catalogues. Use the subject tracings within a record. These tracings indicate all of the subject headings under which that book has been catalogued. These subject headings help a library user who might approach a topic from one of several possible directions. Also, many books cover several subjects and need several subject headings. Subject tracings are an excellent way to expand your search clues. Once the book is located, check the bibliography or bibliographical footnotes for more resources. The call number may be used to locate books on related issues.

NOTE: Books on a similar subject may be classified in more than one call number due to the emphasis of the book's subject matter.

4. Online Databases

A database is any organized collection of information that can be retrieved using organized search procedures. Phone books are databases of names, address and phone numbers that are organized alphabetically. Computer databases are generally much larger than print ones. Every database is a new experience with a few common characteristics of organizing and searching. There are two basic search tools available for database searching: controlled vocabularies and keywords.

A. Controlled Vocabularies:

The most common and well-used example of a controlled vocabulary system is the Library of Congress Subject Headings. LC (Library of Congress) in Washington, DC organized terms in alphabetical lists. There are some simple rules to keep in mind when using LC subjects headings:

  1. With controlled vocabularies, you have to use the subject terms provided by the system. No options are allowed.
  2. The actual wording of the data record (book title or catalogue entry) is not important for controlled vocabularies. Subject headings are assigned on the basis of somebody's judgment as to what the date is about.
  3. Use a controlled vocabulary as a search tool when you want a collection of data on the same subject regardless of what the data actually says about itself. There are many computer databases that we use in our library that use a controlled vocabulary. The ATLA Religion Database on CD & Online, the ATLAS full-text database online, the Christian Periodical Index Online & CD, and the Southern Baptist Periodical Index on CDROM. Some of the terms may not be LC headings. There may be a printed Thesaurus available or the database may have a "browse" function that allows you to type in what you think the subject heading is. The browser will take you to the place in the computer's internal alphabetical subject heading list that is closest to what you asked for, and you can see whether you were right.

B. Keywords

Many databases today, including most of those on the Internet, can be searched only by keyword. Keywords can be tricky to use as they have the potential to go wild with the amount of extraneous information that can be produced by searching this way. However, there are a few rules to follow that can assist you in your process.

With keyword searching, what you type is what you get. The computer cannot interpret your request or give you the next best solution. All it can do is identify the words you ask for and give you the related data.

Boolean Searching

Boolean Searching can be used to help narrow your keyword searches. Boolean searching is used where two or more terms are used to formulate searches. It consists of 3 basic commands:

  • a) The "OR" Command: This is a command that is used when you want to find information on similar terms or synonyms. For example: If you want information on cars, you might want to search the term automobiles, too. In a keyword search in a computer catalog or some other database, your search would look like: cars or automobiles. You could also use the "OR" command when you want to search two closely related terms such as psychoanalysis or Freud. With an "OR" command search, you typically get a lot of "hits", that is, pieces of data brought down to you out of the database. An "or" search is usually for synonyms or for keywords that are already closely related. With it, you are trying to anticipate the various ways something might be described or approached.
  • b) The "AND" Command: This is one of the most profitable ways to use keywords in order to narrow down a search. An "and" search is a limiting kind of search. It asks the computer to give data only when that data contains both keywords. If you are looking for a relationship between prayer and mental health, you don't want every piece of data on mental health, nor do you want every piece of data about prayer. You want the data that comes from the combination of the two terms. Your formulated keyword search will look like this: prayer and mental. You could add the "health" term, too, although it's a judgment call on your part as most of the material will include mental health or mental illness. If you did want to include "health" in the search, your search would look like this: prayer and mental and health. You could formulate a search combining and with or: prayer and mental and (health or illness). The use of the parentheses, you are avoiding confusing the computer and keeping the terms you want together. A keyword "and" search is used to search for data that relates two topics or concepts together. The data found will show the effect of the relationship of these topics. "And" searches will narrow or limit your topic. Thus you can expect that you will not get as many "hits" with an "and" search as with an "or" search.
  • c) The "Not" Command: Let's say you are back searching cars again, but the car you don't want information on is any car made in Europe. Here's how you usually formulate a "not" search: (cars or automobiles) not Europe*. Now, notice a couple of things; I remembered to put cars or automobiles together in parenthesis and I used an asterisk at the end of "Europe". The use of the asterisk is called truncation. In may keyword searches, you can type part of a word, then add an asterisk (*) or sometimes a question mark (?), and the computer will look for every word that begins with the letters you typed. So "Europe*" will cause the computer to look for Europe or European in a single search. (You can also sometimes do forward truncation in which the asterisk goes at the beginning (rare) or wildcards, in which truncation is done in the middle of the word (e.g. wom*n).
  • d) Exceptions to the above rules of Boolean Searching:
    • Some databases want you to put your lining words in capital letters OR AND NOT
    • In many databases, you can do an "and" search simply by leaving a space between words. Example: prayer and mental would be typed just: prayer mental. However, in some databases this creates a phrase search. Just be aware.
    • Internet keyword searches are increasingly using + and signs. Thus + prayer + mental = prayer and mental + cars + automobiles Europe = (cars and automobiles) not Europe
    • In some databases, "not" has to be expressed as "and not"
    • Some databases ask you to put quotation marks around words that need to appear together, eg.: "apple trees"
    • There are some databases now that actually search for synonyms of the term(s) you input so that they can bring up material you might not have found through a simple keyword search.

C. More Hints When Doing Database Research

  • Before you begin a search, you need to label your topic with its favorite jargon. "What are the important words that define my topic?"
  • Consider whether or not you are connecting two or more concepts in unusual ways in dealing with your topic (e.g. Behaviorism and agoraphobia). If you are, controlled vocabularies will probably not work as effectively as keyword searches.
  • Discover the narrowest possible terminology to describe your topic. If you are dealing with Martin Luther, don't search for Church History. If you want information on homelessness, don't search for social problems. Be as specific as you can in determining exactly what you need. If you database search turns up any more than about 100 "hits," you probably need to find more specific terminology.)
  • If you are doing a keyword "and" search, remember that the more information you put on the screen, the fewer hits you will get.
  • In most cases, controlled vocabularies will get you more and better results than will keyword searches. Keywords may be hot right now, but they are ultimately quick and dirty in their results.

D. Steps to Locate Journal Articles found in Database Indexes

  • Once you find an article(s) citation in the index, it is important to copy down as much information as possible in order to find the article quickly and efficiently. Journal citations are organized in indexes is a similar fashion. They will include the author and title of the article, the journal title (or abbreviation), the volume number and issue date, and the page number. You will need all this information to find the article and to record it in your bibliography.
  • Once you have copied the citation information, check our journal listing (book by the computer station, circulation desk, or current periodical reading area) to see if we have that particular journal and volume number in our library. The seminary journal listing is organized alphabetically by journal title, and includes the volumes and dates of the items we house, as well as the format in which the journals can be found. The formats include paper, microfiche, microfilm, bound, and CD-ROM. There are currently some of our journal holdings listed on our library catalogue, but it is currently being worked on. Please refer to the library's Journal Listing for a more complete list of material. (See PERIODICALS for information on accessing the journals.)
  • Periodical articles may then be photocopied or used in the library. Check the bibliographies or bibliographical footnotes at the end of each article for more resources.

Thesis Guide

The seminary requires its students to follow the Turabian style manual in preparing research papers, seminar reports, and dissertations.

Turabian, Kate. A manual for writers of term papers, theses, and dissertations. 6th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996.
Call No.: LB 2369 .T8 1996 (Located in reference stacks).

Research paper/ Library Handbook

An excellent tool for research and writing skills is:

Badke, William B. The survivors guide to library research. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990.
Call No.: Z 710 .B23 1990