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UMW Libraries
Simpson Library | Special Collections

FSEM 100G4: Race and Revolution: How to find things

The research process

I recommend that you follow these steps:

Step 1: Reread the assignment description

  • In the syllabus you'll find a precise description of what's expected of you. Read it thoroughly, and if there's anything you don't understand, ask Dr. Sumner.

Step 2: Find a topic

  • Good topics are out there, but you have to go look for them! At this stage, don't worry about whether a source is scholarly or not -- you're just looking for ideas. Google and Wikipedia are useful at this stage. Look for topics that are interesting, and make sure to pick a topic for which the library has plenty of sources.

Step 3: Find overviews (background information) about your topic

  • In addition to Wikipedia, you can also use the encyclopedias in the Reference section of the library, such as the ones recommended below.
  • When you read an overview, take notes! Write down words and phrases that you could use as search terms. If you're lucky, the overview will have a list of citations at the end. Write down interesting citations, too.

Step 4: Find sources

  • Search in Quest and/or the databases recommended below. Look for different types of sources -- books for broad information, or articles for narrow information.
  • What should you type in the search boxes? Start by searching for the concepts that describe your topic, but don't stop there! Also try searching for concepts or sources from your notes, to follow the leads that you've discovered.
  • Evaluate the sources you find! Use only sources that are high-quality and are relevant to your topic. For help with evaluating sources, see here or ask your librarian.

Step 5: Read!

  • Before this point, you've only been skimming sources. Now that you've identified the best sources, read them closely and carefully.
  • As you read, you might come across more leads (new words/concepts, or citations to other sources). Follow these leads! Go back and forth, repeatedly, between reading (Step 5) and using what you read to find more sources (Step 4).

Step 6: Write your paper, or plan your presentation -- and cite your sources

  • See the UMW Libraries' guide to Citing Resources for more information.  Both the library and the Writing Center can help you cite sources correctly.  


Use Quest to search the library's physical collection and the contents of most of the library's electronic databases.

Quest Logo
Search articles, books, and more...

Background information

The Wikipedia logo

"Background information" means short overviews or summaries of a topic. It's also sometimes called, misleadingly, "tertiary sources" (even though it's not literally third-hand information).

The top Google results for any given topic are usually background information, including sites such as Wikipedia. You can also find background information in print encyclopedias. Simpson Library has a large collection of print encyclopedias in the Reference section on the first floor.

Background information is really useful. It's meant to be used when you're first starting your research. It helps you familiarize yourself with a new topic. However, do not cite background information. The reason why you shouldn't cite it is that it is not original. It merely repeats and summarizes what other people have said. It's better to get the information straight from the original source.

I recommend the following encyclopedias for background information:


Databases that contain primary sources

Some primary sources, such as photographs or videos, are freely available online, but some are only in library databases. Quest can help you find some primary sources, such as newspaper articles. However, most of our newspaper databases are NOT included in Quest. Some of our newspaper databases are listed below; the rest are listed here.


Databases that contain secondary sources

You can use Quest to search many databases simultaneously, or search databases one-at-a-time to focus on particular subjects (such as history). I particularly recommend the following database, which provides secondary sources about American history:

Books in the library

Cartoon art of a book

Use Quest to discover books in the library, and then use call numbers to find those books on the shelves. Here's an explanation of how our call numbers work.

You can check out as many books as you want, and keep each book for five weeks. You can also renew books to keep them longer.

Useful websites

Reference Librarian

Profile Photo
Peter Catlin

Other guides

Advice and recommendations for FSEMs in general, and for History research.

The Citing Resources guide gives you examples of perfectly-formatted citations. Zotero is a free app that keeps track of the sources you've found, and generates citations without any typing.