Research skills for nonfiction books: My top six tips for library researchBy nonfictioness
Libraries are still the best place for quality research. Nothing beats sitting in a nice quiet reading room with a pile of useful books for getting your teeth into a subject. But sometimes it can be hard to know how to find the right books and how to use libraries to your best advantage. The following tips should help you to make the most of libraries.
I would recommend completing some basic online research on your chosen subject first as this will help you to find key texts, identify experts in the field and provides a host of useful starting points.
Once you have a list of books and authors to explore the first stop should be identifying which library to attend. Your first stop should always be your local central library. Search their catalogue online and if they have the books you require then this is the most sensible option to use as you can borrow the books to use at home.
If your needs are not met by your local library then you may want to try one of the legal deposit libraries such as Cambridge University Library, the Bodleian in Oxford or the British Library in London. These are huge libraries with an astounding range of books and articles and are the best places to do some serious research, however they are not obliged to let you use their services so you usually need to speak to reader services to see if you can obtain a reader pass.
I am lucky enough to have a reader pass for the British Library (obtained in my case by having a letter from my publisher confirming I was researching a book) therefore the advice here relates to my experience at the British Library but hopefully it can be applied to other institutions.
It is always best to pre-order books before your visit so as to maximise the amount of reading time when you arrive. At the British Library books cannot be taken out but must be read in one of their many reading rooms.
If you already have a list of books and authors then it should be fairly straightforward to look them up in the online catalogue and reserve them. The complication arises when you are looking up specific information but have no idea which books to use.
As an example for my latest book How to Skin a Lion I wanted to look up… how to skin a lion. In order to find accounts of this skill I needed to find books on the wider subject of big game hunting. So I searched for books on this subject and then refined my search to titles about countries in Africa (where lions would have been hunted). I was ideally looking for colonial era books so I further refined my search by date.
This brought up a modest number of books in the catalogue which I then discounted or ordered depending on the title. It is always somewhat of a gamble ordering books this way but I find that by ordering the maximum ten books every visit I end up with enough gems to have made my visit fruitful.
When I get my pile of ten books I generally have a quick look at them and you can usually see quite quickly which will be most useful. I then work through the books in order using the contents page and index to find relevant passages and if a book is especially interesting I will see if it contains a bibliography so that I can find more books to consult.
Good researchers are like detectives, noticing references to other authors and following one lead to another. Researching is like picking up scattered jigsaw pieces and fitting them together until you have fashioned a whole picture.
It is very important that information taken from books but re-written in your own words are referenced in the bibliography, whereas quotations must include a page number so that readers can refer to the source themselves if interested. Collecting references for your bibliography is best done as you go along as there is nothing worse than realising you have forgotten to properly note down page numbers and having to go back to try and find them retrospectively.
My top six tips for library research:
- Do an online search of your subject first to give you background information and note down references to books, authors or experts.
- Look up these books, authors and experts on your local library’s catalogue. Reserve any with potential.
- If your local library draws a blank, investigate if you can get a reader pass at a legal deposit library.
- Use the online catalogues to identify books you want to consult – it always helps to demonstrate to reader services that you have specific books in their collection that you wish to peruse.
- If you are looking for specific information but do not know of any books that cover that area then try searching for wider search terms e.g. if you are looking for information on the origin of Baa Baa Black Sheep try widening the search term to nursery rhymes or folk tales.
- Always collect full references for your bibliography as you go along.