By Deirdre Clifford ’16
The beginning steps of developing a good research question can often be daunting, especially when given the added assignment of including a variety of sources. The library provides a vast collection of resources, including online databases, to assist with this search.
To start with, it is best to do a general search of the topic of interest. Here is an example related to “Black History Month”; we started with this as a very broad topic, using the database America: History and Life. This is an EbscoHost database containing articles on history and culture. Searches can be refined to articles with full-text, references available, and ones that have been peer reviewed; parameters can be set on publication dates, and the source type can be chosen based on the user’s needs.
We set the results to only show articles with links to the full text, and then chose the second article, “The Controversy Around Black History.” The abstract, provided by America: History and Life, provides a short summary of the main points in the article. Reading these abstracts not only gives an idea of what the article will provide, but also additional search terms. The abstract provided for “The Controversy Around Black History” gives many points important for an essay. Before even reading the article, we learned that the controversy around black history is not a new phenomenon, and are given small insight into the pros and cons of events such as Black History Month. Using the abstract, we can determine if the article will be useful or not, as well as find ways to further our search.
One way to use abstracts and your initial searches is as a way to find additional key words and ideas to narrow your research. “Black History Month” is too broad a topic to ultimately end up with, so we need to narrow down our focus. The name Carter G. Woodson provided the idea for a more detailed search, while the year 1926 provided the ability to find some primary sources. Primary sources and digitized artifacts can be very useful in developing a research question, because they provide historical evidence, revealing how ideas circulated at specific moments in time. Using the database Slavery & Antislavery, which is a collection of books, manuscripts, court records, and serials devoted to the transatlantic history of slavery, we were able to refine the search. This database allows the user to search through books, pamphlets, newspapers, manuscripts, court records, and references documenting the movement to abolish slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The search results can be further refined through publication date, author, and relevance to the search words.
Through a search of Carter G. Woodson, we were able to uncover a variety of search results on cultural studies from the early twentieth century focusing mostly on race relations. Slavery & Antislavery provides access to everything from sections of documents to entire works of historic texts.
By simply skimming the first pages of some of the resources available in Slavery & Antislavery, as well as using the articles provided in America: History and Life, a research question can begin to form. It is important to pay attention to different details in both databases. For example, the majority of articles in America: History and Life were about the controversy of Black History Month. Focusing on that controversy will most likely lead to the most scholarly sources as well as give ways to refine the search. Adding words like ‘controversy’, ‘pro’, or ‘con’ to the advanced search will yield more detailed sources. Additionally, many of the sources from Slavery & Antislavery were between the 1920’s to 1940’s. These would therefore be good years to further investigate for resources and historical events.
Based on this initial question, we can formulate a possible research question and begin to do more advanced searches. For instance, after this first search, we could ask: How has the controversy over Black History Month taken shape since its start in 1926 and what works lead to this disagreement?