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InfoGuides | Pepperdine Libraries

ENG 101 English Composition (Kanet Thomas): Steps to Effective Library Research

This guide will provide a starting point for students researching topics and seeking background information for English composition.

Seven Steps to Effective Research


STEP ONE: IDENTIFY A TOPIC: How to Find and Develop a Viable Research Topic

A. Suggestions for Finding a Topic

  • Discuss your topic ideas with your class instructor.
  • Discuss your topic ideas with a reference librarian. It may be wise to set up a research consultation if your project is lengthy.
  • Scan relevant titles in the Payson Reference databases, such as CQ Researcher or Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Look over the index and the article titles in a specialized encyclopedia that covers the subject area or discipline of your topic (for example, psychology, United States social history, women's studies, linguistics, environmental studies, etc.). For more details on finding and using subject encyclopedias and other background sources, see Step 2

B. State your topic as a question.

For example, if you are interested in finding out about use of alcoholic beverages by college students, you might pose the question,
"What effect does use of alcoholic beverages have on the health of college students?"

C . Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question (alcoholic beverages, college students, health).

D. Test Your Topic.

  • Test the main concepts or keywords in your topic by looking them up in the appropriate background sources or by using them as search terms in the Pepperdine Library Catalog or electronic databases.
  • If you are finding too much information and too many sources, narrow your topic by using the and operator: beer and health and college students, for example.
  • Finding too little information may indicate that you need to broaden your topic.
    For example, look for information on students, rather than college students.
    Link synonymous search terms with or: alcoholic beverages or beer or wine or liquor.


Once you have identified the main topic and keywords for your research, find one or more sources of background information to read. These sources will help you understand the broader context of your research and tell you in general terms what is known about your topic. The most common background sources are encyclopedias and dictionaries from the print reference collection or online reference book collections, such as Gale Virtual Reference Library or Oxford Reference Online. Textbooks also provide background information.

Consult Encyclopedias and Dictionaries

You can find encyclopedias and dictionaries for specific topics by searching the catalog, by consulting a reference bibliography (an annotated bibliography of selected reference sources on a specific subject), or by asking a reference librarian to suggest appropriate titles.

Utilize Bibliographies

Read the background information and note any useful sources (books, journals, magazines, etc.) mentioned in any included bibliography. These sources are good starting points for further research. Look them up in the catalog or Journal Search.

Remember that many of the books and articles you find will themselves have bibliographies. Check these bibliographies for additional relevant resources. Watch for book-length bibliographies and annual reviews on your subject; they list citations to hundreds of books and articles in one subject area. Check the standard subject subheading "--BIBLIOGRAPHIES," or titles beginning with Annual Review of... in the catalog.

By using this technique of routinely following up on sources cited in bibliographies, you can generate a surprisingly large number of books and articles on your topic in a relatively short time.


The first resource for finding books, videorecordings, or sound recordings is the Library Catalog. 

Write down the citation (author, title, etc.) and the location information (call number and exact location). Check the circulation status to see if the item is available.

To find videos on a specific subject, limit your results by Format to Video or specific type of video such as DVD  (on the left side of the results screen)

If Pepperdine does not own the title you are seeking and you have time, please take advantage of our free interlibrary loan service. As always, if you need help, check at the reference desk. 


Periodicals are continuous publications such as journals, newspapers, or magazines. They are issued regularly (daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly). The catalog includes records for all the periodicals which are received by all Pepperdine University Libraries. When you have a citation to a specific article, you can find its location in the Pepperdine Libraries by using the library catalog or Find e-Journals

The catalog does not include information on all the articles within those periodicals. To find periodical articles when you don't have a complete citation to a specific article, use online databases or periodical indexes.

First determine what kind of periodicals you want. Do you want scholarly journals, newspapers and substantive news sources, or popular magazines?

If you want all three kinds of articles, use electronic databases such as  Academic Search Complete , or other EBSCOhost databases.  If you want articles from scholarly or research journals, ask a reference librarian to recommend an index for your topic. If you want newspaper articles, use Newspaper Source (EBSCOhost), NexisUni, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times. If you want popular magazines, use Academic Search Complete, Opposing Viewpoints or the Reader's Guide Retrospective.


Evaluating the sources you find is a crucial step in the process of library research. Initial questions you ask about books, periodical articles, or multimedia sources are similar whether you're looking at a citation to the item or have the item in hand:

  • Author: What are the author's credentials--educational background, past writings, or experience? Is the book or article written on a topic in the author's area of expertise? Biography in Context or the biographical information located in the publication itself can be used to determine the author's credentials. Has your instructor mentioned this author? Have you seen the author's name cited in other sources or bibliographies? Respected authors are cited frequently by other scholars. For this reason, always note those names that appear in many different sources. Is the author associated with an institution or organization? What are the basic values or goals of the organization or institution?
  • Date of Publication: When was the source published? This date is often located on the face of the title page below the name of the publisher. If it is not there, look for the copyright date on the reverse of the title page. On Web pages, the date of the last revision is usually at the bottom of the home page, sometimes every page. Is the source current or out-of-date for your topic? Topic areas of continuing and rapid development, such as the sciences, demand more current information. On the other hand, topics in the humanities often require material that was written many years ago.
  • Edition or Revision: Is this a first edition of this publication or not? Further editions indicate a source has been revised and updated to reflect changes in knowledge or to include omissions. Also, many printings or editions may indicate that the work has become a standard source in the area and is reliable.
  • Publisher: If the source is published by a university press, it is likely to be scholarly. If the publisher is an institution or organization, what are the basic values or goals of that organization or institution?
  • Coverage: Is the material primary or secondary in nature? Primary sources are the raw material of the research process. Secondary sources are based on primary sources. For example, if you were researching the Oregon Trail, a diary kept by one of the pioneers is a primary source, while a book using that diary is a secondary source.


An efficient search of the World Wide Web will produce hits that target your subject interest very accurately. But remember: not everything is available on-line and not everything you can think of even exists. Try several search engines -- they are not identical in how they search their own index or what sites they have indexed or how recently.

A good web site (useful, reliable):

  • Clearly states the author and/or organizational source of the information. Consider the qualifications, other works, and organizational affiliation of the author. Consider the credentials, viewpoint, or agenda of the organization.
  • Clearly states the date the material was written and the date the site was last revised. If the information is not current enough for your purposes or the date is not given, look elsewhere.
  • Provides accurate data whose parameters are clearly defined. Compare the data found on the Web site with data found in other sources (encyclopedias, reference books, articles, etc.) for accuracy, completeness, and recency. Ask a librarian if there are other important sources to check for this information.
  • Provides the type and level of information you need. Decide whether the level of detail and comprehensiveness, the treatment of the topic (e.g., scholarly or popular), and the graphics or other features are acceptable. Find out if there is a published version or other edition which might be more comprehensive, recent, or easy to use. If the site does not provide the depth of coverage you need, look elsewhere.
  • Keeps bias to a minimum and clearly indicates point of view. Be aware that producing a Web page does not require the checking and review that publishing a scholarly book requires; you might have retrieved someone's personal opinion on the topic. Appealing graphics can distract you from noticing even overt bias, so heighten your skepticism and examine the evidence (source, date, accuracy).
  • Provides live links to related high quality Web sites. Click on several of the links provided to see if they are active and to see if they are useful. An "error" message indicates that the links are not being maintained. Check to see if the criteria are stated for selecting the links.
  • Is clearly organized and designed for ease of use. Move around the page to see if its organization makes sense and it is easy to return to the top or to the sections you need. Decide whether the graphics enhance the content or detract from it.
  • In the case of commercial sites, keeps advertising separate from content, and does not let advertisers determine content. Look at the Web address: ".com" means the site is produced by a company and may be commercial, have advertising, or offer to sell something.


Your professor may require a specific citation format. You may be required to use the citation guidelines established by American Psychological Association (APA) or Modern Languages Association (MLA). Style manuals are available at the Payson Circulaton Desk.  The Purdue Online Writing Lab offers helpful advice.