Some Suggestions on How to Find References for Essays

Geoffrey Samuel


There are many ways to locate academic literature on a particular subject. If you are doing this for an essay with a deadline, start well in advance, since the first items you find and read will lead to others, and those to still others. Also, you may need to request items already out on loan to other borrowers, and it will take some time before you get the items.

1. Find a recent book or article (for example, from the Readings or Subject Guide). Look for any items to which it refers which sound as if they may be relevant. Locate these items. You can then repeat the process with the items to which these items refer. This is often the most useful single method. It works best, obviously, with books or articles which discuss other authors at length and which are recent. Remember that journals are usually more up to date than books (books take longer to publish, and even longer to get into the University Library). The Library has a wide range of journals.

2. Look through recent issues of relevant journals in the library. If you aren't sure which journals are relevant, look for the journals in which articles recommended for the subject have been published. When you find a recent article, look to see which references it uses (method 1). This is often the second most useful method. Many journals also contain book reviews, and these can both direct you to books and give you some idea whether the book is likely to be of use to you.

3. Look for review articles which survey recent literature in the field in which you are interested. Collections such as Annual Reviews in Anthropology and Annual Reviews in Sociology are particularly useful. You may need to go back a few years to find a review of the field you want.

4. Identify a significant book in the area from some years ago. Look at the Social Science Citation Index to see what later books and articles refer to it or to other items by the same author on the same subject. For help in using the Social Science Citation Index, which is on CD-ROM, ask at the Help Desk in the Auchmuty Library. There is also a Humanities Citation Index, though it tends to be less useful for subjects in Sociology and Anthropology. These indices are useful to build up a bibliography for an author. They are also a good way to find book reviews.

5. Identify significant authors on your topic, and look in on-line reference sources such as Expanded Academic ASAP, FIRSTSEARCH, Current Contents or UNCOVER to find more recent items by the same authors. These sources are accessible through the "Databases" section of the library catalogue, and often include abstracts. Sometimes, the article itself is available on-line. This is also a good method for finding book reviews.

6. Use the Subject Index in the University Library Catalogue. This may seem the most obvious way to go, but it has some limitations. In the first place, this method will only find books. Journals are not covered, nor are individual chapters in edited books. In addition, it can take some work to find the appropriate headings, and the fact that a book is in the library does not mean that it is worth reading! The Subject Index is still worth trying, and at least you know that whatever you find is in the University Library (unless it is out on loan).

7. A Word Search on the University Library Catalogue may be a better alternative. If you are looking for items on Sikhism, for example, you can search for all titles and content notes containing "Sikh" or "Sikhism". This will also pick up articles in edited books where the contents are listed in the Library Catalogue (some are, some aren't). However if you choose a very common word, such as "India", this method can produce too many items to be of much use.

8. Browse the library shelves! With some experience, you can locate the shelves where you are most likely to find the items you need. Remember, though, that items can be scattered through several categories. Items on Buddhist societies can be found for example in a variety of sub-headings under Buddhism (in the 290's), Sociology (300's), Anthropology (570's), Asian Geography (910's) or Asian History (950's), to name only the most obvious.

9. Computer-searchable subject bibliographies, such as Sociofile or the Bibliography of Asian Studies are available on CD-ROM in the library or (as with Anthropological Index) via the catalogue's Database section. You can search these by author or by subject, and in some cases abstracts of items are included, so you can decide if the item is worth getting hold of.

10. Look for bibliographies and for articles on the Web. If you have access to the Web, search engines such as Google and Altavista can be used for this purpose. You can search for references to titles of books you know in the field or to important places or persons, and you can limit the search by looking for a bibliography. E.g. if you are looking for bibliographies on nationalism on Altavista or Google, you could use Benedict Anderson's book Imagined Communities. If you enter the search line

"Imagined Communities" bibliography

on Google you will get items which include both the phrase "Imagined Communities" and the word "bibliography". Not all of these will be bibliographies on nationalism, but some may be! If one set of search terms doesn't work, try another. (Other search engines have slightly different procedures. For example, on Altavista, you would need a plus sign in front of each term:

+"Imagined Communities" +bibliography

to for4ce Altavista to list items containing both terms. )

Search engines such as Yahoo, which use a subject classification, are also useful if you can find an appropriate category (which is not always straightforward). If you explore the links provided for your subject on my page (if any), you may also find useful lists of references.

If you are using on-line sources, it is often worth saving what you find to a disk so that you can copy the references directly into your essay. They will almost certainly need some tidying up, but this can still save you work. (You can use the same method for short quotations with proper acknowledgement but it is NOT a good idea to copy substantial amounts of text into your essay. This is plagiarism and you are very likely to be found out.)


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GBS. Last updated 04/03/2002