UW Libraries Blog

April 17, 2020

7 Essential Tips for Research: Advice From a UW Librarian

Elliott Stevens, English Studies & Research Commons Librarian

Whether you are a new undergraduate or a PhD student, navigating the Libraries vast resources can feel overwhelming, especially when you are working remotely. Fortunately, UW Librarians like me (Elliot Stevens, English Studies & Research Commons Librarian) are here to help.  My fellow Librarians and I regularly talk with students (over email, on the phone, or via ZOOM) to help them strategize their research process. To schedule a consultation, visit our remote resources page here. In the meantime, here are some of my best tips:

1. Start with a question and a conversation.  When you’re starting out, try to think beyond a topic alone. What interests you about the topic? What do you want to learn? THINK: really juicy, interesting, creative, spiky, audacious questions about your topic – open questions. Questions that scream for some kind of answer. Then, use Libraries resources to find a conversation on the topic–like an academic article, or in the media. Look at how others have approached similar topics and ask yourself:  What is my role in the conversation? Am I here to disagree? Am I here to critique? Am I here to amplify? Am I here to emphasize? Am I here to listen, to record or testify? Understanding how your research fits into the larger conversation can be a huge help in focusing your research.

2. Keep a research log. Create a “one stop shop” to document your research process. Use your research log not only to save your citations and relevant links, but also to write down your questions and ideas. Keeping everything in one place saves a lot of time when you want to revisit something or get stuck–you can always go back to past sources and thinking. At the same time, if you document as you go, you are building your citations and bibliography in real time, and this can help save a tremendous amount of time.

Many students do not realize that their UW accounts can be linked to Google Scholar.

3. Connect Google Scholar to your UW Library account. It’s very important to connect Google Scholar to your UW Library account to avoid having to pay for articles. Many students do not realize that their UW accounts can be linked to Google Scholar.  At the same time, it is important to know that Google Scholar is not a replacement for the Libraries catalog. I constantly go back and forth between the library catalog and Google Scholar- they complement each other, and together will provide more comprehensive and diverse content than just using Google Scholar alone. Learn how to connect your UW account to Google Scholar HERE.

4. Utilize dissertations. This really is one of my top “secret” tips, especially for undergrads who aren’t as familiar with dissertations and how to find them. If you find a dissertation about a topic, not only might the dissertation be interesting to read, but a dissertation is loaded with bibliography– hundreds and hundreds of citations and potential sources for your research. UW Libraries have a dedicated database of UW dissertations and a database of international and national dissertations. If you write a dissertation, you spend years and years of your life trying to find everything about it, so someone’s done that work for you.

5. Reach out to University scholars. When I reach out to experts (faculty, researchers, etc.),  it’s always amazing how often and how quickly they write back–our UW community is such a wealth of expertise and knowledge. If you come across the name of someone who has published a lot on a certain topic, don’t be afraid to contact them directly. They may have interesting insights or additional resources, and they can just be a really good sounding board for your questions.

6. Find the Advanced Search tool on the Libraries page. The search bars that we often encounter–the ones in Google, the ones in websites–are one-dimensional. The results can be a mixed bag. With the UW Libraries Advanced Search tool, you have the ability to fine-tune your search. For example, you could set “Toni Morrison” to “Any Field” and get things not only by her, but about her. If you set “Toni Morrison” to “Author/Creator,” then you get things only by her. In Advanced Search, you can specify dates or date ranges, so you could see what criticism of Morrison’s work looked like in the 1980s and compare it to other time periods.  You can also limit resources to electronic materials only, which is a crucial function, especially right now when there isn’t access to the physical materials in the Library. I like to think Advanced Search is like a spaceship with lots of buttons to push and levers to pull. The more you know about these things, the farther and faster you can take your ship.

7. Use Indexes. An index is a list of published articles within a certain discipline or topic. It provides bibliographic information such as author(s), title, name of journal and more.  For example, someone might want to search the database called the MLA Directory of Periodicals in order to find journals that are important in the world of modern languages and literature. Or, if someone were writing about Modernist poetry or the Anthropocene, they might want to search the library catalog, find a text about those topics, and then scour its index. If they were to find such an index, then they could start looking up its bibliography in the library catalog or in Google Scholar. Here is an example of a text with an index.

Need help with your research, or finding what you need? See our Remote Resources and Services for Spring 2020  or contact a subject librarian to schedule a consultation! 


About the author: Elliott Stevens

In addition to being the English subject Librarian, Elliott Stevens supervises the Student Squad (the student workers in the Research Commons), teaches classes and collaborates on Libraries workshops and events with colleagues. He has an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Kansas and an MLIS from the University of Rhode Island.