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Washington Semester Program

Research strategies and library resources to assist Washington Semester students in writing their thesis.

Research Strategies



Be realistic about the size of the topic that you can tackle. Consider the limitations of your timeline and available materials. It's better to address a focused topic well than to address a broader topic poorly because you are trying to cover too much material.


Begin your research early. Well-done research is an iterative process; leave yourself time for this process to occur! This has the added benefit of extending your resources to excellent sources outside of Holy Cross Libraries, and especially those available to you in Washington.


Be efficient. Use the strategies on this guide (such as: choosing appropriate and multiple research tools; making use of advanced search features; thoughtful choice of keywords; following your sources) to conduct your research in a targeted, effective and efficient manner. 


Follow your sources. Examine the context of those sources (i.e., the scholarly conversation they participate in) and allow that context to lead you to other sources. For example: what else has this author written? What other useful sources are referenced? What other sub-conversations might I want to participate in? 


Consult a librarian as needed. Research librarians are available to assist you -- it's literally our job! Sometimes this may mean making a research appointment (and yes -- you can schedule a phone call, Zoom, or chat with us) ; other times, a quick e-mail conversation will suffice. 



""BRAINSTORM. Spend a few minutes thinking about what words could be used to describe the topic. Be as  specific as you can. 

EXPAND. For each of the words you listed, think of other words or phrases you could use that mean the same thing.

USE EXPERT SEARCH TRICKS. AND and OR make your search more or less specific, giving you more sources to choose from.

  • When you use AND, a database will look for resources that use all of the words you entered.
  • Use OR between words that mean the same or similar things, or that you are equally interested in.

PIVOT AS NEEDED. If you aren't finding much, try...

  • Rephrasing. See if you can find even 1 or 2 relevant articles, note what subjects are listed for them, and use these to try again.
  • Broadening your search. Try taking your topic one step bigger. If you're not finding enough about the Clinton campaign, what about womens' presidential campaigns generally? 
  • Switching tools. Sometimes you just need a different database! 

You can use the worksheet below to help jumpstart your keyword searching: 


No piece of research stands alone; each is part of a broader scholarly conversation in that topic/ field. These resources have clues that you can TRACE, if you know how to look! 

Terms– Check the abstract, subject terms and article for concepts and terms that you can use for your future searches.

Reported in Is the journal where the article was printed relevant? Try searching for other articles from this journal.

Author What else has the author(s) published on this topic? Search the databases for their other publications

Consulted by Check Google Scholar to see which articles or books have cited your sources, and to find
more-recent research which builds on your original information.

Evidence -Check the references list (or bibliography) to see what previous research this resource is drawing on. From here, you may wish to consider: 

- Previous articles or books published on your topic
- Other authors who have published on your topic
- Journals where your topic is frequently discussed

Tools for TRACE-ing: 


Browsing library stacks can be a valuable technique to expand research on your topic, no matter where you are. This is perhaps even more true when using libraries whose catalogs you are unfamiliar with. 

Most academic libraries, including Dinand, use a system called Library of Congress Classification (LCC) to organize books. Each book or journal is identified by a unique call number. Unlike call numbers in the Dewey Decimal System, LCC call numbers include a combination of both letters and numbers. These call numbers identify the location of the book in the stacks; they also identify the subject (or the main subject if there are more than one) of the book or journal. 

*Note: As you might guess, Library of Congress also uses LCC for some purposes, but its stacks are not open for browsing. 

Because call numbers are subject-based, it is possible to physically view most of the books on a given topic in one area of the library. This means that it is possible to visit the stacks and browse the selection of materials on your topic, and that the number section for your topic should be the same, even in different libraries. 

To begin, you can....

(a) Locate a book on your topic in the library catalog, and note the call number; OR
(b) Identify the LCC call number range that corresponds to your topic, by viewing the Library of Congress Classification Outline

This will tell you the area of the library where you should begin browsing. If your topic is complex or multidisciplinary, there may be more than one area that you should visit. 

You can also watch  our Call Numbers video tutorial  to learn more about how call numbers work. While the way that specific libraries apply call numbers may vary slightly, the basic principles will be the same. 

Why browse the stacks? 

It's true -- it might require less effort to virtually 'visit' the library stacks via the website. And, the catalog is a great way to find both e- and print materials on your topic. However, because the catalog relies on keyword searching, sometimes truly relevant titles slip through the cracks -- maybe your keyword wasn't in the description of the book recorded in the catalog (these descriptions are not always comprehensive), or appeared in a slightly different form. 

When you visit a library's stacks, you can view all of the books on the shelf (so long as they are in the right spot!) and see what you might be missing. Often, browsing the shelf will turn up an even better resource than the one you were originally searching for. It's also possible that, in going through a long list of search results, you overlooked a title that is a little more eye-catching on the shelf! 

Reminders: Understanding Your Sources


No matter what you're researching or what kinds of information you're working with, you should always situate your source within the context of the timeline, the audience, the content, etc. Think of it like doing a background check! 

Check Your Facts! 
Fact, Fiction, or Something In-Between?  You be the judge! 
Ask yourself these questions to evaluate sources of information. 
Is this information current? Does the time frame matter?
Who is the author, publisher or sponsor of this information? 
Is this information supported by evidence? 
Who is the intended audience of this information?
What is the purpose of this information - to inform, teach, sell, entertain, or persuade? 


Lateral Reading is a more nuanced technique of evaluating websites and other kinds of sources. 

While the questions on the previous page are a great place to start, sometimes you can't answer them completely -- or, sometimes, they don't give a complete picture of the information you are looking at. 

The video below explains what lateral reading is, why it's important, and how to do it. 


Compare the articles linked below. Which one(s) are scholarly? What makes you say this? 

Scholarly sources are written by experts on a particular subject (for example, a professor or other researcher). They also go through an extra process of review and approval by a group of other experts before they can be published. Usually, scholarly articles are written in 'academic-ese' and designed to be read by other scholars. However, because scholarly sources take a long time to be approved and published, they are not always good sources for current events.  

How can you tell if you have a scholarly article in your hand? 
The chart below compares the characteristics of scholarly vs. popular (non-scholarly) sources:  Handout version of popular vs. scholarly source chart; click to enlarge

author Usually staff writers and/or journalists Experts on the topic -- usually researchers, scholars and/or professors
audience General public (for "popular" consumption) Other experts (and students) in the field
editing & review Editor(s); generally concerned with grammar, style, etc., with some fact-checking Other experts ("peer reviewed"); generally concerned with quality, thoroughness of research, strength of argument, etc. 
style & design

Reasonably brief, typically uses colloquial if not informal language. Often illustrated with graphics, sidebars and other aesthetic elements. Sometimes accompanied by ads.

More extensive in length; tends to be more formal and uses specialized vocabulary. Illustrations and charts are used only when furthering content. 
goal OR purpose To entertain; and/or, to share general information To share findings, advance and argument and/or engage with other scholars
sources Few or none; if sources are used, there may not be formal citations.  Typically uses many sources, cited in detailed bibliographies, footnotes and/or endnotes
examples Time Magazine; Sports Illustrated; New Yorker; Boston Globe Annual Review of Political Science; American Historical Review; Sociology of Education

It's important to keep in mind that scholarly sources are not always the best or only source available to you -- it depends on what information you are trying to find:

  • Due to the time required for a scholarly article to be researched, written, go through the peer review process and then be published, it can be difficult to find scholarly articles published about recent events, discoveries, etc.. You should expect 1-2 years between the time an event occurs and the time academic research on that event begins to be published, with some exceptions. 
  • In some disciplines, other means of conveying timely and research-based information have developed -- for example, working papers in the discipline of economics. Working papers have not undergone the same kind of rigor and review as their scholarly counterparts, and they often represent early versions of research that will later be published in a peer-reviewed forum. However, in many cases they are still perfectly reliable and robust sources of information and analysis. 
  • For matters related to policy, official government documents or publications such as CRS Reports are also good sources of information that may not be available in peer-reviewed formats. 
  • News articles, correspondence and other 'primary sources' can also provide useful insights, again depending on your topic.  


The Information Lifecycle helps us understand how information about an event, topic or idea might emerge and evolve over time. 

Note that this timeline is just a general sense of the information lifecycle -- the exact timing can vary greatly from one discipline to another! 


In the humanities, a primary source is a first-hand witness to a historical event or period (that is, it was originally created at that point in history).  Primary sources offer a first-hand perspective which is untouched by hindsight, subsequent events, or modern knowledge. They provide insights about the actions, motivations and emotions involved in a historical period, and allow us to understand history as it was experienced at the time rather than as we analyze it today.   

Unlike with secondary sources, the value of primary sources lies in their proximity to the event rather than a particular publication venue and/or authority (though this can also play a role in your interpretation of the source). For this reason, primary sources may include a combination of scholarly, popular, unpublished, and other kinds of sources. 

Secondary sources are second-hand witnesses -- they provide descriptions and/or analysis of historical events and documents after the fact. Secondary sources usually draw their information from primary sources, but add a layer of interpretation, and often rely upon the kind of understanding of historical periods and/or events that only becomes clear sometime later.