When conducting research, you can usually find everything you need in a good library.
A theological library like Westminster’s Montgomery Library provides a specialized selection of materials relevant to the various branches of theological study. An online catalog allows rapid perusal of the library collection, and you may be surprised to find the number of book titles related to your topic. In addition to the library stacks, the Montgomery library provides electronic access to numerous online journal databases.
Several times each year, library staff host guided orientations to the library’s resources, and there are always staff members available to help students find what they need. Even if the materials you are seeking are not readily on hand, they can be borrowed freely from other libraries via an inter-library loan.
The development of web technology has created an explosion of information available online. While the web is generally the fastest source for information about many topics, not all of the material online is suitable for academic research. Beware of using information from blogs, discussion boards, and sites like Wikipedia that contain entries by anonymous contributors, as these are not reliable sources of information or analysis. Intelligent readers expect you to cite material from authoritative and reliable sources. Referencing dubious web material is simply inappropriate for academic work.
Nevertheless, the web can be a useful tool for research, especially for getting an initial sense of what resources are available. Additionally, online journals and searchable databases provide access to material that may not be available in print. For a summary of some useful internet resources for theological study, see the Montgomery Library’s Internet Research Links.
Not all sources are created equal. Some may appear relevant to your topic, but will turn out to be unhelpful. Others may be highly relevant but unreliable, inadequate, or outdated. As you seek out the best material, consider the following tips:
- Skim all sources prior to spending time reading them in depth. This is a useful approach to reading in general (see Pre-Reading). When reading articles, skim through the introduction and conclusion to get a sense of an author’s main emphases. When skimming through books, you can use the table of contents and index to learn how the author approaches a subject and what aspects of that subject are given the most attention. For example, many works of biblical scholarship contain indices of both topics and scripture references that list every instance where a topic or passage is referenced. If you find that your topic or passage receives little treatment by an author, you may quickly decide not to use it.
- Utilize the bibliography in one or two authoritative sources to guide your research. A scholar who is accomplished and respected in a given field usually cites only those sources which contribute meaningfully to the discipline. If you trust the scholarship of a given author, you should consult the sources he or she recommends by inclusion in a bibliography. This is a helpful short-cut that can point you to the important books and articles relevant to your topic.
- Take note of the publisher. Established and reputable publishers have high standards for the material they print. Books printed by presses of major universities are subjected to intense peer review prior to publishing, while independent and smaller publishers may not require this process. Inferring specific information about a book from its publisher is difficult, but as you begin to notice which organizations tend to publish which kinds of books, you should learn to guess what sort of book to expect from a given publisher.
- Consider how old the source is. Some subjects like Latin grammar or the theology of Augustine’s City of God do not undergo drastic development over time. However, other subjects require attention to ongoing developments in the field and to the debates that take place among scholars. This is often the case with research in biblical and theological studies, which are significantly impacted by shifts in culture and by the development of critical methodologies. Moreover, some subjects like the archeology of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the development of postmodern theology are simply too new to allow the researcher to rely on anything but the most up-to-date material
- Evaluate the credibility of the author. Nearly every published work contains some information about the author. Is the author a reputed expert on her subject or simply a popular figure promoting unfounded theories and opinions? Beware especially of authors who are experts in one area but who, by virtue of their popularity, have published works in areas outside their expertise. (For example, Sigmund Freud’s work Moses and Monotheism gives an account of the history of Israel based significantly upon Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. Although Freud was an expert in experimental psychology, his speculations about ancient history have been largely dismissed by scholars in that field.)
- Discuss your research with fellow students and professors. Do not underestimate the value of informal conversation with other people about your sources. Often professors and other students can point you to new resources you might not have considered.
There are many viable styles and approaches to taking good notes while researching. An important part of being a competent researcher is finding a system of note-taking that works for you. Among the many useful note-taking strategies are:
- The time-trusted method of handwritten note cards. This approach allows you to lay out all your notes in front of you and rearrange in various ways. It can also be time-intensive.
- A hand-written or electronic document containing all your notes. Using a word processor allows you to search the document quickly using a “find” command. It also allows you to cut and paste quotations and bibliographic material directly into your paper.
- Taking notes directly in the margins of your source. Taking notes directly in your source helps to stimulate your active engagement while reading. However, this method prohibits you from organizing your notes and viewing them all at once. If you use sticky tabs to help you find your most important notes, you can go back after you are reading and transfer these notes to a central location like an electronic document.
- Taking notes in a database. Several powerful academic software packages exist that allow you to take notes directly in a database. Some of these programs are inexpensive or free and automatically format references in footnotes and bibliographies. Two useful such programs are Endnote and Zotero. Because software is continually developed, consult fellow students, professors, writing center staff, and your own resources to discover what program might work best for your needs.
Regardless of which strategy you use, your notes should record the following information if they are to be useful to you:
- Bibliographic information (author, title, location, publisher, date, page number, etc.). If you fail to record this information in your notes, you will have to go back to your sources when completing your bibliography.
- Significant statements made, questions asked, or conclusions reached by an author about your topic. Your notes should clearly indicate when you are directly quoting or paraphrasing an author. Be sparing when recording actual quotations, as most of the material you read will not need to be quoted directly in your writing. Do not hesitate to record an author’s important sentences or key terms, or any statements that you find unique or especially quotable.
- Observations about an author’s basic method for approaching the topic. Take note of how an author analyzes a subject (e.g. tracing its historical progression, attending to its literary subtlety, or describing its social qualities). This information will help you compare different authors according to their different concerns and approaches.
- A brief summary of your own thoughts regarding each source. Making simple notes to yourself to indicate that a source is “helpful background material” or “too speculative” can be useful as your research progresses and when you are writing your paper.
Taking notes on your own thoughts on a topic is a useful exercise in pre-writing that can greatly improve your research and the quality of your final written work. As you read the works of others, you will find your own ideas about your topic challenged, affirmed, or expanded by new considerations.
The goal of this process is a clearer and more precise understanding of your topic. As your understanding develops, write down your thoughts, unanswered questions, suggestions for different angles of approaching a problem, and anything else that comes to mind.
Writing, in the research phase, is an aid to clearer thinking.
- As you struggle to understand and articulate conclusions about a subject while researching it, you may realize that your research needs to take a new direction.
- As you follow the questions prompted by your engagement with these sources, your research should function as a dialogue between you and the authors you are reading.
If carried out well, the task of research leads naturally in the direction of analysis and the formulation of a thesis.
You may also wish to make use of the following bibiographic software:
Other "Beginning Your Research" topics:
Beginning Your Research Home
Sources that Guide Theological Research
Becoming a Better Writer Home