Hege Library & Learning Technologies

Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

The Search Strategy

Let's take the broad view first.

Your goal is to find the best and, in most cases, the most up-to-date information pertaining to your topic.

The specifics of your search will vary from field to field, and we can assume that you will get detailed instructions from your instructor. But there are some important things that apply to everyone.

One is that you need to consider the difference between primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are materials that are the original sources of information about a topic. If you are writing a paper about Edgar Allan Poe, for example, your primary sources would be his actual writings: poems, short stories, essays, letters, and anything else he wrote. Secondary sources, on the other hand, are other people's comments on and interpretations of Poe's writings. Here we're talking about biographies, critical articles, and books written about Poe. In other words, secondary sources represent the critical conversation going on about your topic, whether that topic be a writer, a scientific phenomenon, a theory in management.

Something else: before you dive into library indexes and computerized data bases, consider possible avenues of inquiry beyond formal research modes. For example: whom can you talk to? How better to get up-to-the-moment information than to talk to an expert via telephone or e-mail? Are there chat rooms where you can post questions?

Library (print) research vs. computer research

You need to do both.

Where research is concerned, we live in an important transitional age. Within the last several years, an immense amount of material has gone on-line. We're talking here about data bases that index books and journal articles and that sometimes contain the source materials themselves. It is now possible to find both primary and secondary materials via the Web.

But it's not all there yet. In fact, only a small fraction of what you can find in print is available on-line. Betty Place, former head of Information/Reference Services, puts things in perspective by asking "what about the 36 million books already out there?"

And as for scholarly articles, note the description of the Academic Search database available to you on NC-LIVE:

Abstracts/indexing for 3,200+ scholarly journals, full-text for 1,000+ journals with many dating back to 1990.

The italics are mine. The point? On-line indexes record only the most recent stage of the conversation. What about everything that appeared prior to 1990?

Consider the Internet to be a second, parallel library that is growing independently and according to its own rules. It is a library that is only in its infancy.

Something else about computer resources, and here I'm thinking about Websites rather than data bases. Most of what is available on the Web is unrefereed. What that means is that the information does not go through a review process. So how do you know the material is accurate and not slanted? By contrast, academic books and articles in scholarly journals undergo a rigorous process in which experts in the field determine whether the material is worthy of publication. Often, three separate readers will be sent copies of the manuscript to evaluate before it is accepted for publication.