→ Listen to advice given to students new to the world of humanities research by Bob Scott, Head of the Electronic Text Service.

Finding Resources

This section of Library Compass will help you understand the different kinds of resources available for research, how to find them, and how to use those resources effectively by incorporating specific search strategies. You will gain a better understanding of how and when to use:

  • Different types of resources -- encyclopedias, journal articles, books, news sources, videos, and full-text databases -- available at Columbia University Libraries.
  • Effective guidelines and strategies for searching CLIO and library databases.

Where to Look

Because we receive information from so many different outlets, including television, Internet, journals, books, newspapers, and email, it can be difficult to know how to begin (or how to limit) your search. But if you know where to look and have some strategies for how to search effectively, you can find a manageable amount of useful material in a reasonable amount of time. The first step is to find appropriate materials and assess them quickly.

Reference Resources

General reference sources like encyclopedias, dictionaries, or bibliographies, are good places to find background information, get an overview of a research topic, and identify possible sources of specific information about your research questions.

Whether in print or electronic format, they include a variety of possible sources.

Type What, Why, And When How To Find Them
Dictionaries Many subjects have basic descriptions or glossaries of terms. These can be useful to explain specific terms or concepts. The Libraries' website includes a list of online dictionaries. Print versions are available in the reference section of the Libraries and through CLIO .
Subject Dictionaries Specialized dictionaries arranged by subject or genre may provide longer articles about a subject. Examples are: Dictionary of Literary Biography or The Grove Dictionary of Art Online.
Encyclopedias Can be general or subject specific and often give further readings on a subject. The Libraries' website includes a list of online encyclopedias. Print versions are available in the reference sections of the Libraries and through CLIO .
Subject encyclopedias More specific than general encyclopedias and focused on only one subject. A good example is The Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by Kenneth Jackson. An example available in both print and electronic format is: The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Print version listed by title in CLIO.
Biographies A good source for background information on an author or historical figure. Butler Reference Room (301 Butler) has an extensive collection of print biographies, arranged by country, both current and historical. The Libraries' website also lists a number of online biographical sources.
Bibliographies Books that list books and articles about a topic or person; often annotated. A useful place to start research on a topic you know little about or that is so broad that you need help in focusing on one aspect of it. Find bibliographies in CLIO by searching a keyword or subject and adding the term "bibliography." For example, search : shakespeare and bibliography in either basic keyword or subject headings to retrieve books with the Subject Heading Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 --Bibliography.


Articles usually give you a more focused approach to a topic than a complete book. They also provide access to the latest research findings and debates in a given subject area.

Types of articles

There are two different types of articles that you can use in your research: scholarly journal articles and popular press magazine articles. These two types of articles are aimed at different audiences and serve different purposes.

Scholarly Journal Articles Magazine Articles / Popular Press
Usually written in academic journals by scholars in a specific field; use specialized language; oriented toward scholars and researchers; articles are usually longer in length than in popular press magazines; usually include notes and bibliographies.

Academic journals are also called peer-reviewed journals since articles are reviewed by a group of one's peers before being accepted for publication. An example of a scholarly journal is Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Magazine articles and newspapers, referred to as popular press, are geared to the general public. They are usually shorter in length than scholarly journal articles and use simpler vocabulary; they lack bibliographies or footnotes and are often unsigned. Examples include articles from Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times.

For research purposes this type of article can provide the most current information on a topic and can provide general background information about an event.

Where and how to find articles

If you already have a specific citation to an article in a journal or magazine, use Citation Finder or search CLIO by journal title to see if Columbia Libraries owns the journal and in which format. You can link directly to e-journals from the CLIO record. In your title search remember to drop initial articles such as "the," "a," or "an." A journal may be available in a variety of formats:

  • Current print issues
  • Bound volumes (a year's worth of a journal run bound together as a hardcover book)
  • Microfilm
  • Electronic (full-text online edition)

If you are looking for an article by topic and don't know the exact journal it might be in, remember that you never use CLIO to find journal articles. Instead, look in print periodical indexes or in Databases in E-Resources on the Libraries' website.

There are two kinds of article databases listed in our Electronic Resources/Databases

Citation Databases Full-Text Databases
Lists articles on a topic and may include a short abstract. Does not include the full text of the article, only the citation, but may link you to the full text through E-link. If the full-text is not available online you'll need to check CLIO for the journal title to see which Columbia library it's located in, and what volumes are held there. Lists article citations and also includes the full text of the article, which can often be emailed, printed or downloaded.

JSTOR is a good example of a full-text database of journal articles.


Books discuss a topic in more depth than a journal article and lead you to other valuable sources in the field. There are about 8 million volumes in the Columbia University Libraries so there will be hundreds - if not thousands - of books on a broad topic such as New York City History. But you can quickly assess a book's relevance to your topic by following some basic guidelines.

How to evaluate books

  • Skim the Table of Contents, Introduction or Preface to see how often your topic is mentioned and from what point of view. This is a good indicator of whether or not this book addresses your topic and may be relevant even if it presents information you disagree with.
  • Look at the Bibliography or Works Cited to see what kinds of journals or books this author used to bolster his/her argument. How current are the references? Are they only from one kind of resource? Does it seem to be a comprehensive list that includes books, articles, and websites? The bibliography included in scholarly works is often an excellent source for further resources, primary sources, and to see the key publications in the field. See the Toolkit for an explanation of primary and secondary sources.
  • Who is the author or editor? What are his/her credentials? Is he/she an academic well known in the field?
  • Who is the publisher? A university press will be more discriminating in the kinds of scholarly books it accepts for publication than a publisher aimed at a more general audience. This is a good indicator of the book's authority.

Where and how to find books

Find books in the Columbia Libraries by searching CLIO, Columbia's online catalog, by title, author, keyword, or subject. Refer to the CLIO HELP pages for a detailed explanation of all CLIO features, and tips and guidelines for searching. Remember that while more than 90 percent of Columbia's library collections are available through CLIO, there are still some older items that can only be found in the card catalog. Ask a librarian for assistance if you need help using the card catalog.

Visual Materials/Images

Find videos and DVDs of classic, documentary, and performing arts films in CLIO. Search for visual material by title or use Quick Limits.

The Libraries has acquired large collections of digital images that include artwork, maps, photographs, and unique archival materials. Search for these under E-Images on the Libraries' website.

Academic Websites

These can include unpublished proceedings, working papers, and locally published electronic journals of the most current research currently taking place in universities. At Columbia, Earthscape and CIAO are good examples of this type of resource. Use these resources to find information on the latest issues and concerns in a specific field.

Search Engines

Valuable research exists on the Internet, available to all. Search for material using keywords or titles, but be sure to evaluate the credibility of public web resources more carefully than the Databases on the Libraries' website. One tip is to look for websites ending in .edu or .gov for reliable educational or government sites. See Compass Point 3 - Evaluating Resources for specific strategies to evaluate Internet sources.

There's more to research than Google. Although Google can be a useful tool, do not rely on it as your sole resource. The quality of material you will find through Google varies considerably and, as a result, you will need to be extremely discriminating. Many of the most valuable databases - especially the ones available on the Libraries' website - are not freely available on the Internet and so you will not find them through Google. Columbia Libraries subscribes to specific databases based on reliability, currency, and the credibility of information - take advantage of Columbia Libraries' evaluation process to streamline your search.

Special Collections and Archives

Several libraries at Columbia have unique collections of rare books, papers of famous individuals, architectural drawings, oral history transcripts, ancient artifacts, and manuscripts. Some of these items are listed in CLIO and can be searched using the Quick Limit "Archival Collections." Look for finding aids on Library home pages or consult a librarian if you would like to access this material.

Search Strategies

Knowing where to look for resources is one important step in the research process. However, knowing how to search effectively will help you find the most relevant material about your topic. Use the guidelines in CLIO HELP for a detailed explanation of its search features. Below are some basic principles that hold true for database searching and will enable you to find exactly what you are looking for.

Choosing the Right Database

Ask yourself these questions to be sure you are looking at the right database:

  • Does it have the kind of sources you want? Some cover scholarly material and others only include popular press material.
  • Does it include the dates you're interested in? Not all databases cover the same chronological range. For most academic fields electronic bibliography is available from the early 1980s onward.
  • Have you tried multiple databases? Every database you find on the Libraries' website gives you a good deal of unique material, even though there is some overlap. It's therefore a good idea to try as many relevant databases as you can find.

Database Searching

In general, good database searching should be a back and forth, interactive process. You've got to look critically at what you find and then jump back in again with a refined search strategy if necessary.

Records and Fields: Using Controlled Vocabulary

Databases are collections of information divided into discreet chunks, which are called records. Each of those records is divided into sub areas, which are typically called fields. The fields that are available on any given database are going to be different. There are three points to keep in mind:

  1. You want to know what fields are available on your records to know what information is there. The best way to do this is to do a couple of simple searches and look at the records. Make sure that you look at the full version of the record.
  2. You want to see whether there is a subject heading field, with a controlled vocabulary, and just how much subject-related free text may be available to you in any abstract or content notes fields. If these are absent, you will probably need to think of many synonyms and related terms to find a decent number of relevant records.
  3. In many databases some fields have been indexed, their contents alphanumerically arranged and ordered, just as in a book index. You can then browse through that index, say, to see all the things by a particular author or browse through a list of subject headings; it's often a useful way of taking stock of the database's contents.

Free-Text Search Strategies

Logical operators: "and," "or," "not"

Logical operators allow you to take the search terms in a free text search and group them together in ways that help focus in on what you want. The most obvious one is the "and" operator. Linking search terms with "and" narrows results to those records that contain all of the terms. The more terms you add in the search, the narrower your search is going to become. It's a good idea to start out with a simple "and" search and then narrow it down with additional terms if the initial result is too big.

The "or" operator lets you retrieve records containing any of the terms in a set, while "not" or "and not" operators allow you to exclude records containing a particular term. Logical operators are sometimes represented by symbols (e.g. "+", "," and "-"). "And" is sometimes implicit -- that is, two words entered in a keyword search field are considered to be linked by an "and." In all cases, however, the principle is the same.

Proximity operators

Proximity operators enable you to specify how far apart the terms in your search can be in the records you retrieved, often a matter of critical importance. Proximity searching can be particularly useful when searching full-text databases, where proximity can help to ensure that two search terms are actually related to one another. For instance, in searching the Lexis-Nexis database you might use a search such as "poland w/40 solidarity" (which will search for the words within 40 words of each other) if you were interested in finding articles discussing the famous trade union, not simply using the term "solidarity" in a more generic sense. Unfortunately, databases frequently differ in the way they handle proximity. If you can't easily identify the proximity operators used in your database, ask a librarian for help.


When you are using multiple logical operators, it is important to group them together in the order in which you want the search engine to process them. Simply typing in a complex string of logical and proximity statements can produce an unexpected result, since most databases will read a string from beginning to end and process it in that order, while others will give priority to certain operations over others. With nesting, you typically join groups of related terms together by putting parentheses around them. For example, if you wanted to find citations to literature on Czech or Polish poetry or drama you could group the "or's" together so the search would be processed in the right order: (Czech or Polish) and (poetry or drama).

Truncation and wild card

Truncation allows you to search for different permutations of a word. For example, if you were looking for the words reformation or reform in the text, you might just want to type in the string reform, followed by a truncation symbol at the end to get all the permutations of that root. Some databases will let you insert wild card characters inside a word to retrieve variant forms: for example, in many databases, "wom?n" will retrieve records containing the words "woman" or "women." Several different symbols for truncation and wild card markers can be encountered, but the most commonly used are the asterisk and the question mark.

Library Databases vs. Google

As you become more adept at employing the techniques described above, you should be able to master virtually any database you encounter on the Libraries' website, confident that you have harvested the material it contains that is relevant to your research. Though Google is a magnificent tool for mastering the vast and heterogeneous content of the Internet, it is less well suited to the kind of precise and comprehensive searching one wants to be able to do in a scholarly database. Anyone who has tried to search for a precise but unusual piece of information with Google, even using the "advanced" search tools that imitate but do not replace the search techniques described above has experienced the difference first hand. There is so much irrelevant material to screen out, and one cannot be confident of finding precisely what one is looking for. By using carefully selected search strategies, giving careful thought to the way that your topic may be reflected in the language of the database records, and knowing how the search engine is processing your query terms, you can be confident you have found everything of relevance to you. Ultimately, you as the researcher will have the best idea of what you are looking for.

continue to... Evaluating Resources