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Getting started on a paper can be exciting, but it can also be daunting. Where should you start research? What resources will you need? Is there a lot written on your topic? Is there a dominant author in the field? These are just a few questions that you should be asking yourself when you’re tasked with writing a paper in university.

In most cases, your first stop will be the internet, but when it comes to academic topics, I believe that search engines should be used as a complement to research, not a replacement. Here’s a piece of advice that you won’t hear anywhere else. It has worked for me and many of my students have told me how useful it has been for them as well. Here it is: one of the easiest ways to find resources for an undergraduate paper is to get lost in the library.

Alright, so my advice to get lost in the library is a bit ironic and it should not be taken literally. The aim is not for you to aimlessly wander through the library and pray that sources magically appear in front of you. There is a road map for (properly) getting lost in the library stacks and I outline it below. Each of the “stops” on this journey is important to writing a well-researched, A-level paper.

Stop #1: Search the catalogue

Before heading to the library stacks, you should do a quick search of key words in your library’s catalogue. Key words should be based on some of the main themes and sub-themes that reflect your paper’s topic. Play around with word choices and try to get a broad sense of what academics have said about your subject matter. If you have difficulties developing a list of key words, then I would recommend asking your professor/TA and/or a university librarian for assistance (note: university librarians are one of the most underutilized resources at universities. Despite this, they can be your greatest asset in the process of researching).

When you perform a key word search, a list of books will appear. The books are usually sorted by relevance to the terms. Writing down the first 4-5 books and their call numbers (which indicate where the books are located in the library) will usually serve as a good starting point. Here, you should be paying attention to similarities in call numbers. Notice a trend? If your resources can be found in the same section of the library this is a good thing.

Stop #2: Finding resources

After completing stop #1, you will have a list of books and their call numbers. Stop #2 involves going to library and heading to the section(s) where the call numbers are located. After finding the books, spend some time looking at other resources in the same location. What many students don’t know is that university libraries are organized thematically so there will probably be other resources there that you didn’t discover in the library catalogue. Take anything remotely relevant to your paper off of the shelves. The process of discovering something that you would not have otherwise found demonstrates the importance of getting lost in the library.

Stop #3: Narrowing down your list of sources

In order to figure out what books are most significant for your paper, I recommend doing three things:

  1. Read the table of contents in each of the books and determine if any of your paper’s main themes intersect. If so, borrow the books and examine the sections that are relevant to your paper. I can almost guarantee that this initial process will expand your understanding of whatever topic you are writing on. Don’t forget to take notes, too!

  2. Skim through the bibliographies of each relevant book or chapter. From there, ask yourself “what appears often?” If the same resource is referenced regularly, it is probably very important.

  3. Find these newly discovered resources. If the library does not have one (or more) of the books, then speak with a librarian because it may be possible to borrow them from another institution.

At this point in time, you should have an appropriate number of quality materials to write a strong paper. You’ll have formed an awareness of what has been written on your topic and you’ll be able to form informed written insights. If your goal is to produce a thoroughly investigated paper that is sure to impress your professor/TA, this is a great start.

Writing university-level papers starts with investigative research that uncovers a variety of perspectives on a topic. The more you are able to find and read, the better informed you will be. Trust me, if you invest an appropriate amount of time in writing and editing your work, solidly grounded research will make you stand out from your peers. By following the road map above and getting lost in the library, you should be able exceed the expectations for research set by your course director. Just try it once, you’ll see what I mean.