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Introduction to Research: Choosing a Topic

This is a brief introduction to research in the Library, how to decide on a research topic, how to find relevant materials and how to cite them.

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Identify Your Topic

Based on what you’ve been talking and reading about in class, pick a topic that interests you – after all, you will probably be spending a lot of time working on your project! 

Think about different aspects of your topic and pick one that is not too narrow or too broad.  If your topic is too broad, you may be overwhelmed by the amount of material you find.  If your topic is too narrow, you may be frustrated by the small amount of material that is available. It’s important to be flexible – you may have to narrow, broaden, or even change your topic as you move through the research process.

Try to think of search terms, synonyms and alternative terms for your topic. For example, if your topic is the California Gold Rush you might consider terms such as:

  • California history
  • California gold mining
  • California gold discoveries
  • California 1849 - 1853

Once you have identified the main topic and keywords, look for background information. Good places to look for background information include general reference sources, such as encyclopedias and dictionaries. Background information can:

  • Introduce you to a topic and provide an overview;
  • Provide some of the terms unique to the topic;
  • Provide important names, dates, places, and people related to your topic;
  • Lead you to other sources through the bibliography or “recommended reading” section.

Refine Your Topic

Did you find too much information on your topic?

A topic that results in too much information is a common problem, and you may need to make your topic more specific.  If you are having trouble narrowing your topic, consider the following questions:

  • Is there a specific time period you want to cover? (for example, in the 1960’s)
  • Is there a geographic region or country on which you would like to focus? (for example, the United States)
  • Is there a particular aspect of this topic that interests you?  (For example, public policy implications, historical influence, sociological aspects, psychological aspects, specific groups or individuals involved in the topic.)

Didn’t find enough information on your topic? 

If your subject is too focused or detailed, you may have a hard time finding enough information.  In this case, you will need to broaden your topic. If you find too little information, you can broaden the scope of your topic by:

  • Lengthening time periods (example: use the nineties instead of 1995)
  • Consider the broader issues (example: food safety instead of genetically modified food)
  • Increasing specific geographic areas (example: use Los Angeles County instead of Santa Monica