Getting Started on Research

Major Research Tools

1. MHC Library Catalog - for finding books available in the valley.

Our online catalog lists the books owned by all the four colleges and UMass. It also lists journals we subscribe to, but does not index those journals.

You can search the catalog by author or title, if you are looking for a specific book, or by keyword or subject if you are looking for books about a particular topic. The trick with this tool (as with all research) is effective searching. See the search tips area below for some ideas.

Once you have identified a book or books you want, use the call number to locate that book in our stacks. The stack chart tells you which floor to go to. Note: if the book is at one of the other colleges, but not Mount Holyoke, you can have it sent here through the Five College Borrowing program.

2. Scholarly Databases (under 'E-Resources') - for finding journal articles published anywhere.

Indexes help you identify articles published in journals as well as (usually) other types of literature like conference papers, dissertations, essays, etc. Unlike the Online Catalog for books, these are not lists of items owned within the Five College system, but rather more comprehensive lists of articles published in journals. Our library may not own the source. However, interlibrary loan is available and we can get almost anything. You just need to plan ahead a bit.

Our library gives you access to a wide range of indexes so that the first step is determining which one or ones might be best to use. When you click on the Research Guides link, you'll find them categorized according to the main subject area they cover to make it a little easier to decide where to start.

3. Research Guides - for more subject-specific advice on getting started and suggestions of reference books you might try as well as specific indexes to use.

4. "The Web" and special Electronic Resources - for expanding your research beyond the library walls.

The internet is an access medium rather than a resource, really. Most of the indexes and databases (e-resources) we use as well as our own library catalog are actually made available via the web. We also have access to some special collections of electronic/digital resources like  e-books and other digital text collections and multimedia.  But besides those specific sources, there is information out there on the internet in general and some of it might actually be useful -- critical thinking and evaluation skills are a must, however. For tips on searching the internet at large and judging the credibility of what you find, check out Cornell University's handy Five Criteria for Evaluating. For some selected sites with useful information in your subject area, check out the research guides.

5. Writing and Citing Tools

You've done the research and found books, journal articles, and websites on your topic.  For the next step, use these writing and citing tools, such as, RefWorks an online tool that manages citations and creates biblographies in over 30 styles, or the Research and Documentation Online Guide with citation format guides and examples for MLA, Chicago, APA, CSE.  For an introduction to citing your sources, see the Proper Use of Sources Tutorial

General Searching Tips

(These concepts are geared toward our online catalog but can be applied to almost all database searching - including searching the internet, i.e. search Google, etc.)

1. Think about your topic carefully - divide it into its component concepts - think of synonyms and angles of approach. But, don't be afraid to jump in and try things.  This will help you focus more appropriately both on which are the best databases to search and how to craft a good search strategy.

Let's say you are doing a paper on "Suicide and the Elderly" - this could be approached from the angle of sociology, medical research on aging, psychology, or even as an ethical (philosophical) proposition. If you have a particular focus in mind it will guide your selection of relevant databases/indexes to look in to. There's no sense searching for epidemiological articles in a database that is indexing philosophy journals!

Then you need to think about appropriate search terms [see also #2, below]. Either track down the most likely subject heading(s) to look under or load up on synonyms for your keyword search. Alternative terms and phrases can be so important when you have to match up exact words. Just think -- perhaps the perfect article for your research on suicide and the elderly is one which is actually entitled "Should older people be allowed to kill themselves?" Notice that neither the word "suicide" nor "elderly" appears there. If those were the only terms you searched with you would never find this article.

2. Keep in mind that there is a difference between subject searching and searching by keyword. The search system or interface you are using may not offer "true" subject searching, but understanding the difference and what it means for your search strategy will save a lot of frustration. Subject headings, in the classic sense, are standardized terms that can really help you pinpoint what you want (if you know the standardized format -- see #3 below). Searching by subject (where possible) will guarantee at least broad relevance of your search results.

Searching by keyword means that the computer is just going to find anything with that word or words in it.* You'd be amazed at all the different (and completely irrelevant) contexts in which you may find some words and phrases. So, using keyword search will generally increase the size of your results list and will likely decrease the proportion of relevant results. On the other hand you may pull in some things you didn't know you wanted until you saw them. Keyword searching is also a good way to take a quick first stab at something and help you find the standardized subject terms for your next search.

Suppose you want to find a book about the role of play in child development. You might first try a keyword search such as "children and play". In our catalog, this brings up almost 500 entries. If you scan them, you'll see that most are actually theatrical plays (e.g. 'Cleo's Cafe: a Play for Children'). But if you keep skimming through the list of titles you'll find that among those there are a few which are more nearly what you had in mind - for instance 'Children in Play, Story and School'.

If you look closely at the individual record for one of the books that does sound relevant, you can find the subject headings that were used to describe it. Any that look useful or interesting can be used in a new search by subject. In this case you might try just plain "play" as a subject heading. This will first give you a list of all the official subject headings that start with the word play (this can be useful for more ideas later). But if you just look at the 200 or so books listed under "play" - you'll see a markedly different list of books than in your original keyword search. And most of them are relevant to your topic.

There are several ways you might further refine, or expand, your search strategy, for instance - by limiting according to a second keyword or subject heading, by trying some of the other subject headings either listed under "play" or used to describe a particularly relevant book. You can also narrow down by more practical considerations like language, date of publication or which college owns the book.

Please don't hesitate to Ask a Librarian if you'd like some help or more suggestions.

*Note that the typical internet search tool (like Google, AltaVista, etc.) is basically doing a keyword search. One difference, though, is that they also have a human-designed and then computer-generated algorithm working behind the scenes to try to rank your search results in order of how likely they are to actually be relevant to what you were looking for. Some of these ranking systems work pretty well, e.g. Google, but they are far from infallible since they are, in effect, sophisticated guesses.

3. Notice the subject heading pattern or scheme in order to make better use of it.  In a good index, it should be a logical hierarchical structure.

Here's how the Library of Congress subject headings (this is the system our Library Catalog uses) for "Philosophy" and "Philosophers" go:

  • Philosophers - 
    but then also more specifically:
    Buddhist Philosophers, Pre-Socratic Philosophers … (i.e. subsets of all philosophers) 
    Ethicists, Logicians, Platonists … (i.e. subsets with their own "names") 
    Philosophers, Ancient; Philosophers, Medieval … (i.e. subsets by time period) 
  • Philosophy - 
    and also more specifically:
    Aesthetics, Cynicism, Ethics, Hedonism, Humanism … (i.e. specific branches of philosophy) 
    Good and evil, Perfection, Reality, Thought and thinking ... (i.e. philosophical concepts)
    Philosophy, American; Philosophy, Comparative … (i.e. groupings by approach)