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British Literature Research: Searching Basics

Welcome to the Literary Research guide for British Literature from the 18th century to the present.

Identify a Topic

Identifying a topic to research is the first step in the research process. But settling on a subject for your research paper can be a bit overwhelming. Here are a few helpful tips.

Brainstorming for Ideas

  • Select a topic based on your interests. What are you curious about? What are you passionate about? Are you passionate about topics that are of a social or political nature? Is there a subject you are not familiar with and want to know more about? Is there a mystery or a historical event you would like to explore?
  • As you begin to think about a variety of interests, write down keywords/concepts of interests that may help you build a more focused topic. Consider related or synonymous words with your topic or search phrase. For example, if part of your research topic includes "assessment" and  you are not finding a lot of content using the word "assessment" try "evaluation".
  • Once you have narrowed your choices to a small number, read about the topics in an encyclopedia. This will give you an overview of each topic, discover some additional information that may peak your interest, identify additional words to help describe your topic and locate additional sources when you begin searching more seriously. Use indexes to magazines, journals, or newspapers to search for articles related to your topic. Try searching the web as well to find sites related to your topic.
  • You'll want a topic that is manageable. A broad topic will overwhelm you and a topic too narrow can be limiting. If your topic is broad there are a few ways to help you manage. Try narrowing your topic by:
    • Geography (for example: ...poverty in Southern Appalachia)
    • Timeframe or period of time (examples: last 5 years or during the Depression Era)
    • Culture  (for example: the Christian point of view)
    • Population (examples: college students or senior citizens)
    • Discipline (for example: environmental regulations affecting the economics of...)
  • If your topic is too narrow you may have trouble locating the needed amount of information.
    • If your topic is recent very little information has been written about the subject
    • If it is a local topic the sources of information will be few
    • A popular celebrity may only be found in magazines which are often written by contributors. If you are required to use scholarly articles this will be a problem.
  • Turn your research topic into a research question or turn your research question into a topic sentence. Why? When you define your topic as a research question you may have more questions about the topic. When you turn your research question into a topic sentence you may identify more concepts which will help you build a more focused research question or a more manageable topic.
  • Finally, do some more research on your topic. Go back to the list of keywords  and search the library's catalog, databases, and the internet. Are you finding enough information on the topic you are close to selecting?
  • It may even help to construct a Thesis Statement. This statement should convey what question is being answered, what is being proven, or what you are informing your readers about.

Searching Techniques

Basic or advanced searching can be done in any of the databases we have access to or the library's catalog WorldCat.

First, try a simple keyword search such as Air Pollution. Keyword searches produce a large amount of results. This type of search is broad and less precise. Fortunately, most online catalogs and databases have features to help you refine your search terms. Refinement features may include author, year, format, content, audience, or sub-topics.

Creating a search strategy:

Next, try Boolean searching. This type of searching allows you to combine keywords using operators AND, OR, and NOT.

To narrow your results use AND with two or more concepts. Example: Environment AND Air Pollution - both terms will be searched.

To broaden your search use OR with synonymous or related words.Example:  Recycling OR Reusing - this search results in hits containing information about recycling or reusing (one or both will be searched)

Sometimes one of your search terms may produce a list of results that includes articles that are not relevant to your topic. Using the operator NOT eliminates words from your search and reduces the number of results. Example:  Reusing NOT Recycling. The word Recycling will be excluded from the search. 

Other Search Techniques:

You can broaden your search by using the Truncation technique. Depending on the database the symbol may be the (*), (?), (%) or ($). This type of search allows you to replace the end of a word with a symbol. Example: adolescen* retrieves adolescence, adolescent, adolescents

Another technique is using Wildcard symbols such as (*), (#), (!), (or (?). This technique substitutes a symbol for a letter in a word and searches for variant spellings. Each database is different and you'll need to check with the database search tips to identify which symbol to use. 

Example: wom*n retrieves woman and women

Database Searching

Most databases are structured so that records are comprised of the following fields and make searching and retrieving a little easier:

  • Keyword
  • Author
  • Title
  • Title phrase
  • Subject
  • Journal
  • Abstract
  • Publisher
  • and more...


Constructing a Search Strategy Worksheet