Skip to Main Content

Essentials of Library Research

Helps you define your topic, find books and articles, evaluate the information you find, and cite your sources.

Choosing a Topic

Coming up with a topic for your paper can sometimes be the hardest or most frustrating part of the research process. It can be intimidating to have a big library research task in front of you. Don't worry--just about everyone feels this way at some point! 

And it's O.K. to not feel completely confident about your topic. That is why we do research: to see what is already out there, and then come to a conclusion or make an argument. It may take several iterations before you settle on a final topic or thesis. That's why it's important to start as early as you can, so that you still have enough time for the searching and exploring stage.

See the Finding and Exploring Your Topic Research Guide for more in-depth help for this stage of your research.

Creating Keywords

Building a good search statement will help you find great resources related to your topic. The library's Search Strategy Generator will help you translate your topic into search terms or keywords.  

Choosing an Argument

The library has some series of books and specialized databases which summarize both sides of an issue. These may help you develop a topic, and help you track down appropriate research.


To find relevant books go to Library Catalog Searchand search one of the following:

"opposing viewpoints"

"contemporary world issues"


Databases & Websites

Narrowing Your Topic

Sometimes a topic that seems like the right size for your paper can seem way too big after you’ve learned a little more about it.  When this happens, you need to narrow the focus of your paper.  You can do this by considering different ways to restrict your paper topic.

Some of the ways you can limit your paper topic are by:

  • Who – population or group (e.g., college students; women; Asian Americans)
  • What – discipline or focus (e.g., sociological or historical perspective)
  • Where – geographic location (e.g., United States; universities; small towns)
  • When – time period or era (19th century; Renaissance; Vietnam War)
  • Why – why is the topic important? (to the class, to the field, or to you)

For example, a paper about alcohol use would be very broad.  But a paper about reasons for alcohol abuse by female college students in the United States during the 1990s might be just right.

Broadening Your Topic

Sometimes you will find that your topic is too narrow - there is not enough published on your topic.  When this happens, you can try to broaden your topic.  There are a couple of strategies you can try when broadening your topic.

One strategy is to choose less specific terms for your search, e.g., standardized tests instead of SATs, or performance-enhancing drugs instead of anabolic steroids.

Another strategy is to broaden your topic by changing or removing limits or filters from your topic:

  • Who - population or group (e.g., instead of college students, choose a broader section of the population)
  • What  - discipline or focus (e.g., instead of choosing a sociological perspective, look at a number of perspectives)
  • Where  - geographic location (e.g., instead of Michigan, choose United States)
  • When  - time period or era (e.g., instead of 1984, choose 1980s or 20th century)

For example, a paper about alcohol use by college students at the University of Michigan in 1984 might be too narrow of a focus.  But a paper about alcohol use by college students in the 1980s might be just right.