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World History by Topic: Library Research Strategies

Library Research Strategies

Too Broad - Too Narrow - Just Right!
Find the Right Focus for Your Library Research Project

Read the instructions for the assignment, carefully. Make sure you understand what is required for your choice of topic, the length or extent of the work expected of you, and the types and numbers of sources (articles, books, statistical sources, etc.) you should use to support your work.

Pick a topic that meets the requirements of the assignment and that interests you.  Look for a topic that you find relevant, or a topic on which you hold a strong opinion. You might focus on a current social or political controversy, or a topic in the news, or you might simply choose a topic that you wish to know more about.

Pick a manageable topic.  Learn a lesson from Goldilocks.  The topic “global warming” is likely too broad for a ten-page, college-level paper.  You would not be able to address all relevant aspects of this topic in just ten pages.  On the other hand, “the effect of global warming on the availability of Arctic caribou as a food source for polar bears on the margins of the Beaufort Sea” might be too narrow a topic.  You might not find enough sources to support your ideas on a topic this narrowly focused.  A topic that lies in‑between – such as “the effect of global warming on land-based food sources of polar bears” – might provide a “just right” focus for a paper project of this size.

Get Background Information

Read an encyclopedia article on your topic.  A scholarly encyclopedia article, or even a Wikipedia article, can give you a brief but thorough overview of your topic.  It will present what is known on the topic, introduce important concepts and facts and definitions, and identify key people, places and events associated with the topic.  This will help you choose the best words when searching for articles, books and other sources of information.

How to find an encyclopedia article.  Look for online encyclopedias under the Articles & Databases tab on the Library home page (  Click on Find a Resource by Subject and select Encyclopedias

You can also find lists of subject-focused encyclopedias on many Library research guides  ̶  like this guide.
Man reading

Develop Your Search Strategy

Choose the most effective search words.  Most library databases are pretty literal.  If you search in them using the word children, you find records that include the word children, but not records that contain instead the words child or childhood or youth or adolescents – alternate words that express the same general idea.  Search using the key words and phrases that a scholar writing on your topic might use.  If you want sources on “childhood labor in the United States”, you might construct a search grid like this:


Boolean Operators.  Boolean operators determine the relationship between the words used in a database search. A search for boys AND girls means that both words must be present in resulting records. A search for boys OR girls retrieves records that have either or both words. And a search for boys NOT girls returns records that include the word boys except those records that also include the word girls.


Phrase Searching.  To search for words as a phrase – such as “Tea Party” or “global warming” – put the phrase in quotation marks. The database will show only results that include that exact phrase.


Truncation.  Truncation lets you search for words with a common, initial root.  A search for employ* – using the asterisk as a wildcard – returns results that include words like employment, employer, employee, employees (plural), employable and employability, as well as the root word employ.

How to Find Books

The UCSB Library has two catalogs to facilitate the identification and retrieval of books and other sources of information: the UC Library Search and the WorldCat Discovery at UCSB Catalog.


UC Library Search has a record for every book, DVD, map, music score and sound recording, etc. held by the UCSB Library and UC-wide libraries. It also has records for some (but nowhere near all) of the articles found in scholarly journals and magazines made accessible through the Library.  The WordCat Discovery at UCSB Catalog shows books and other items held at other UC campuses, and in libraries around the world. Use the "Get it at UC" button to borrow items not held by the UCSB Library.

To search for books using UC Library Search, click on Advanced Search and change the Material Type from "All Items" to "Books" before searching.  Type words or phrases that describe the different facets of your topic into the search boxes, following the advice found in the Develop Your Search Strategy box on this guide.

The Results screen shows records that match your search words and phrases, displaying records ten at a time.  Use the Refine My Results options in the column on the left to narrow the results you see to Show Only … Item in Place (for print books). You can also limit results by date of publication, by language, etc.  In addition to author and title, each record on the results screen shows the book’s Library Location and Call Number (see below), and tells you whether the book is checked out or is on the shelf.  If the book you want is checked out you can request                            that a copy of that same book be sent to you from another library via Interlibrary Loan.

How to Borrow Books


Once you have the Library Location & Call Number of a book that you want to borrow, you can retrieve the book from its shelf in the Library stacks and bring it to the Services Desk, located near the Library entrance. 

Your UCSB Access Card is your library card.

For more information on borrowing books, go to

Course Reserves

Many professors place books on "course reserve" to ensure that all students in the class have access to each week's readings.  Students may borrow Course Reserves for a very short period of time, usually just two hours!  To borrow a Course Reserves book, look for its call number in the Course Reserves catalog  ̶  you will see a link to Course Reserves under the Services tab on the UCSB Library home page.  Bring the call number to the Services Desk, and a staff member will get the book for you.  For more information, go to

How to Find Scholarly Articles

You can use the "Articles, Books, and More" option in UC Library Search to find articles indexed there, but this is NOT a very good way to find articles.  The Library subscribes to hundreds of article indexes and research databases, and to tens of thousands of scholarly journals, giving access to millions of individual journal articles. 

UC Library Search cannot "see" what is published in many of these journals, so an Article Index may be better at showing you scholarly articles that have been published on your topic 

To locate an article index that covers your topic ...


... click on the Article & Databases tab on the UCSB Library home page, and use the By Subject drop-down box to choose a discipline.  If you know the name of the database you want to use, you can use the A-Z database title list.

You can also find lists of subject-focused article databases on many Library research guides  ̶  like this guide.

Searching in an article index or research database works much the same as in UC Library Search. The index matches the words you enter against words in the titles, abstracts, subject headings, etc. of the records that represent each item in the database.

Most article indexes and research databases let you limit your results by type of publication (e.g. scholarly journal, popular magazine), date of publication, language, subjects and more.


When you find an entry that looks interesting, click on the                              button to see if the UCSB Library has access to the item online or in print, or to order a copy via Interlibrary Loan.

What's on This Page?

This page gives advice on how to start your library research.
Click on the tabs at the top of the Library Research Strategies box to learn how to:
  • Find the Right Focus for your research project,
  • Get Background Information on your topic,
  • Develop Your Search Strategy to ensure better search results,
  • Find Books, and
  • Find Scholarly Articles.
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