Research Tips for Unfamiliar Topics

From time to time, students are called upon to write upon topics upon which they have little knowledge of the primary and/or secondary literature.  The following are some suggestions on how to begin researching unfamiliar topics.

  1. Search the online databases of the closest research library (associated with a university or seminary, mine is Boyce Library at SBTS)  for key words or terms related to your topic.  If you don’t know where the closest research library is or you want to search multiple libraries at the same time, try WorldCat.org. A search on this database will bring up a list of books, when you click on a title you will have the option of inputing your zip code and libraries containing the book will be listed in order of their proximity to your location.
  2. Look at the books generated from your search above.  Look at their footnotes/endnotes and/or bibliographies to find more books on the topic. Track their sources (going back to Worldcat.org if necessary) to find their sources, to find their sources, ad infinitum.
  3. Another source for bibliographies listing works related to your topic can be general resources such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and survey works (such as Church Histories and Systematic theologies in my field).  These will sometimes contain specific articles related to your topics written by specialists in the field.  Their bibliographies can be a goldmine for finding the most recent and best resources on a topic.  The general survey works, though probably not useful as a source themselves, will provide listing of more specialized works that will be useful for your research.  Again, track down their sources (going back to Worldcat.org if necessary) to find their sources, to find their sources, ad infinitum.
  4. Search for articles on the topic or related topics using keywords in library databases or online at databases such as Google Scholar. Check their footnotes/bibliography. Then, track down their sources (going back to Worldcat.org if necessary) to find their sources, to find their sources, ad infinitum.
  5. Another good source for bibliographies for further research are scholarly dissertations (which can be found at University/Seminary or through online databases, usually only accessible at research libraries) which have huge bibliographies. In dissertations, as well as the other resources mentioned above, the newer a resource is the better chance that its author has consulted the most resources and therefore would have the most up-to-date bibliography (this is not always the case with shoddy scholarship, so be careful here).

Tolle lege!

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