Finding Sources for Difficult Topics

        By now some of you have learned that you picked topics in which the college is singularly good place to work in the matter of research sources, and others have picked "the topic from hell," one which the faculty do not teach here and have not urged the library to acquire sources for.  A mature scholar would have to go where the sources are, but you are just starting your scholarly career and have not got that luxury.  Here are some tips for wringing the maximum out of the minimum available sources for the latter group.  In any event, DO NOT CHANGE YOUR TOPIC WITHOUT DISCUSSING IT WITH ME, AND SHOWING ME ANYTHING YOU HAVE FOUND SO FAR!  Our goal is to learn how to figure out where the sources are hiding, and difficult topics actually are better for that lesson than are easy ones, where the sources jump into your lap like puppies.

1)  Remember the strength of using your sources' sources.  Thus, if you've found only one article or book so far, look to its sources and see if it can direct you to others.  You only need a few to make this paper work if you use them creatively.  Find what you can and show me what you've got.

2)  Scholarly reviews are sources, too.  The key test is to see whether they are published in either a scholarly or popular-scholarly journal.  In either case, you can use it.  The author will have been chosen on the strength of her/his scholarship in the field the book was published in, and the review will be edited for signs of obvious bias.  In scholarly journals, the reviewer's college or university will indicate her/his source of authority, and you can do an "Author" search in the appropriate bibliographic search engine to determine what else s/he has written, which may turn up sources, as well.  In popular-scholarly journals, the reviewer usually is given a short biographical note indicating a university position s/he holds or a recent book-length study s/he has written, as evidence of her/his authority.  The review also may refer to other, recent books on the same topic, perhaps arguing that they did a better job of explaining things.  If so, you have another source. 

3)  Book authors get to write books by writing articles.  For every book on the shelves, there are many articles by that same author on various aspects of the topic that eventually turned into the book.  Even the best researchers who limit themselves to only topic or keyword searchers may miss articles relevant to the topic, but if you know that "Sigmund Freud wrote a big book about dream analysis," you also know that he wrote articles about it and you can search for them quickly using an "Author" search on his name.

4)  If you have a popular-scholarly article, or even a popular article based on scholarship (e.g., science reporting in the New York Times or Washington Post), you can use the scholars it refers to in an "Author" search to find their scholarly work on the topic.  After all, that's how the journalist who wrote the popular-scholarly or popular press article found them in the first place.  Note that the newspaper articles are unacceptable for this paper, but their sources' scholarship certainly would be!

5)  Your professors often know of influential articles or book-length works that, for one reason or another, you have been unable to find.  As a last resort, go to a professor who teaches in that field and ask for assistance.  Don't ask for the articles or books themselves unless they're offered to you.  You don't want the instructors to think you want them to do your work for you.  But asking for the name of a researcher to seek out is perfectly legitimate and it's a great way to begin an intellectual relationship with people whose relationship to you may be extremely important to your success in the next three years.

6)  If you have been working alone in your bibliographic searching and haven't found anything, remember that  the librarians at the Goucher Library are your allies.  Don't be afraid to seek expert assistance--they help faculty researchers, too.  They understand how the bibliographers store and retrieve data, and their search strategies are the most likely to reveal whether there really is anything out there or not.

        To all of you, but especially to those of you struggling with resistant topics, be courageous.  Ask yourself what the world will value more: easily available information that almost anybody could put together, or hard to locate information that evades easy analysis and requires ingenuity to wring the truth out of it?  Great researchers are like great explorers, persevering through all trials and willing to endure all dangers to find out what things really are true.

        And if you do all these things and come up empty, contact me immediately so that I can help you move to your next best topic!