English Composition I
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Decide on a topic. Occasionally your teacher will have already assigned you a topic; in this case, you are stuck and have no choice. However, if your instructor has given you some freedom, be sure to choose a topic that interests you. Nothing kills a paper faster than when the writer is bored.
At this point in the process, try to keep your topic fairly broad. You don't want to get too specific until you know there is enough information available to support your topic.It is far better at this stage to research depression in the elderly, rather than rushing into your thesis and researching whether lack of family contact causes depression in elderly patients.
Check the usual suspects: where do you usually get information? Look in the magazines and books that you have around the house. If your family gets Time or Newsweek, check there first, especially if your topic is current events or commonly discussed/written about. If your family has a computer and a CD-Rom encyclopedia, you might want to check your topic here for basic background information as well.
The Library is where formal researching begins. Once you have discovered what information is easily available, you are ready to begin more formal searching. There is a difference in the materials available at a college library as opposed to a high school library or a public library, so be sure to pick a library that best matches your writing situation. A paper for the general public will most likely have the best support from a public library. A high school library will supply the right kind of information for a high school paper. Likewise, for a college paper, you should try to use a college or university library.
The Internet is the next area to search. Most libraries will also have electronic and Internet resources available, but since these resources are also available in people's homes, I have made them a separate entry. Most people rush to the Internet quickly, because it is new and of the moment. However, a student using the Internet for research needs to understand that not all information available through the Internet is equal. There are many different ways that the information is organized, and each one has its problems and merits.
Database: a database is a closed set of files owned by a company that usually requires some sort of membership or subscription to access. Card catalogs are an example of a database containing information about the books in a particular library. Most of the databases that you will have access to for research will consist of information about articles in magazines and newspapers.
WilsonWeb - The Nebraska Library Commission is currently (as of 2002) purchasing a statewide access to this database for students in Nebraska. Simply go to http://www.nlc.state.ne.us/nebraskaccess/ , and login using your Nebraska State Driver's License.
Archive: an archive is the term used for a database of a single publication or publisher. Most websites for magazines like US News, the Atlantic, The Grand Island Independent, etc. have some sort of archive. There will occasionally be a charge for accessing the items in the archive, or there may be a registration process. However, if you have a particular magazine that you like or that normally has very solid articles, it's worth looking on the page for an archive button to click.
Search Engine: anyone who has used the Internet knows about search engines. However, very few users really understand what they are and how they work. Search engines send out programs called spiders that capture the information used in a website and then send that information back to the search engine's computers. The spider then follows the links on the page to go out to new pages. Once the information is at the main computers, it is compiled into a database. Thus when you search a search engine for a term or topic, you will get back every page (out of the billions on the web) that contains that term or topic ANYWHERE on the page. This means that a search engine search usually gets back an enormous amount of matches; so many matches that most search engines aren't really helpful anymore. However, there are a couple that work better than others.
Google is currently the best search engine available, and one of the simplest to use, especially for multiple word searches. The results that you get from Google will almost always be the best results you get from the web. Google chooses which sites are best by determining which sites are linked to the most often by other sites. This simple concept means that Google's first 20 or so matches are almost always among the best that you can find.
Directory: a directory is often mistaken for a search engine, but it is actually a specialized database. A directory like Yahoo or Looksmart are simply lists of websites that the people at the directory thought would be useful to people interested in the subjects being discussed. Unlike a search engine, a directory doesn't go out and find websites; they have to be submitted and reviewed by the directory's staff in order to be listed. This means that most directories will give you a good, solid selection of sites on a subject without having to deal with all of the clutter that often comes up in a search engine. However, many directories also accept payment to be listed, so just because a website is listed in a directory doesn't mean that it really is the best--it could have paid to be included.
DMOZ is the preferred directory for research purposes. Unlike Yahoo or Looksmart, dmoz categories are edited by individuals with solid credentials in the subject area. At this time, dmoz does not accept payment for placement, either.
We live in a media saturated world. Research tends to bias the printed word, but don't feel that YOU have to limit yourself to just what is written. Feel free to branch out and utilize TV programs, films, videos, songs, photographs, etc. As long as they are relevant to your topic and have influenced your view, they are a legitimate, usable source.