Understand Types of Research Material

After you nail down a topic for a writing assignment, you can start gathering information. Before you head off to the library or the Internet, however, first consider the types of materials commonly used in research assignments. Each type has its pros and cons.

Reference books

When you want to quickly look up a fact or statistic, turn to reference books. This category includes atlases, encyclopedias, dictionaries (general and specialized), almanacs, maps, biographical dictionaries (such as Who's Who in America), government guides, yearbooks (not your school yearbook, but formal yearbooks that include information about what happened during a particular year, including statistical information, miscellaneous facts, and summary of key events), and other similar resources.

Reference books can give you a good overview of a topic and may provide some useful facts and statistics. However, you often have to go beyond just the general picture presented in a reference book. As another drawback, reference books may not include the most recent information. For example, an encyclopedia may not be published frequently enough to cover new trends or topics.

So that they are available to everyone, you can't check out reference books from a library.

Regular books

In addition to reference books, entire books or just portions of other books may be devoted to your topic. Books are often useful for getting a more in-depth look at a topic. Also, books may show how the topic relates to other topics and issues (versus a reference entry that's independent and focused on only the topic).

Unlike reference books, you can check books out of a library. On the downside, if someone has already checked out the book you need, you may have to go to another library or find another resource.

Special collections

Libraries also often have special collections that may include rare books. (You usually need permission to access and review these materials.) You can also find tapes, videos, CDs, DVDs, and other materials.

Magazines, journals, and articles from other sources

For current information on your topic, you may consult recent magazines, journals, newspapers, and other printed materials. To find what's been recently published in these resources, you use a guide that lists recent (and older) articles and their specific publication information. One such guide is the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, a reference you can find at the library. You can also find other guides, including the MLA International Bibliography.

Articles provide timely, up-to-date information, but you can't always tell from the information in the index whether the article contains information useful for your assignment. You usually have to read the actual article to see whether it's relevant. Also, finding the actual articles can be difficult. Not all libraries carry or keep all periodicals.

Web site resources

You may be able to find recent statistics or facts from online reference sites, such as the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. You may also find articles posted online about a particular topic. Web site information is usually current, and searching the Internet is fast and convenient. You don't have to worry about someone else checking out the resource you need.

Accuracy can be an issue on some Web sites, so check to see who has written or posted the article and/or who's in charge of the site. For the most part, anyone can create his or her own Web site and post any information, whether it's true or not. Make sure the author and/or site is reputable by checking out the credentials of the author (if he or she is listed) or the site (look for a link called About this Site or something similar).