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Writing 39C Information Literacy Tutorial - 2019 version


"Pre-Searching" to Explore Topics

There are many ways to start your research project, and it all depends on your current familiarity with your topic 

How familiar are you with your topic?   Where should I look?
I don't know much about it at all   General websites, encyclopedias 
I know a little, but not any specifics   Books, News sources, CQ Researcher
I have a firm understanding of the basics   Start looking for scholarly sources

If you are mostly unfamiliar with your topic, you are probably better off by starting with basic web searches and looking for background information using Wikipedia or other encyclopedias. Keep in mind that this is only a starting point, though!

Once you know more about your topic, you should move on to other sources, including books, magazines, and news sources - things that are written for a general audience that will help you with a more nuanced overview of the topic. 


Refining a Topic

Most people start with a topic that is very broad. 






As you refine your topic, you may find yourself broadening out and then narrowing down again. Eventually, you should be able to define a topic that is sufficiently specific enough that it identifies a particular problem or issue that you might be able to propose a solution to later in the quarter, but also sufficiently broad enough that you can expect to find a reasonable amount of evidence written about this topic.

Strategies for narrowing a topic

Conduct a general internet search on your broad topic. See what types of conversations are happening around this broad topic.

  • Websites from organizations that do advocacy or research around your topic
  • News stories (often recent) on issues related to your topic
  • Online encyclopedia articles (like Wikipedia) that may help give you further background information

Explore online encyclopedias that the library subscribes to. A couple good ones are linked from the first page of the Writing 39c Research Guide

  • You might find an entire specialized encyclopedia devoted to your topic. Or, you might see how a specialized encyclopedia (e.g. the Encyclopedia of Mental Health) frames a topic like "homelessness" to help you refine your topic


CQ researcher logo

Explore CQ Researcher, which consolidates research on current events topics.

  • CQ Researcher's reports are well-researched, link to additional sources, and identify a number of subtopics within an issue. The timeline in each report is a particularly useful tool for your Historical Conversations Project



Explore books on the topic by typing in your broad keyword (e.g. "homelessness") and getting a sense of what kinds of works have already been written about this topic. Books can give you a broad overview and context for your topic, and may also include chapters that are more specific.

  • Explore topics in Library Search
  • Filter your results by Resource Type (choose "books")
  • Look at the topics of each chapter, or look in the index for other potential topics


Some students try to dive into scholarly sources such as academic journal articles right away. This strategy can backfire and can cost you valuable time. Scholarly sources might be too narrow in focus or use too much jargon to be helpful as you explore your topic.