Basic Research: How to Begin

compiled by Modar Neznanich

The main purpose of this article is to provide information to assist members of the
Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. in doing research for arts & sciences projects,
persona development, SCA name documentation or similar pursuits. However, much
of the information can additionally be applied to other research purposes.

Many people are interested in doing research, but have trouble finding information about a subject that they are interested in. Following are some techniques to assist people in uncovering information and making use of it. Many of these may sound simple, but it is amazing how easy it is to overlook some of these steps.

The first thing to do is check with your local libraries. The public libraries are the easiest to access, so begin there. While most public libraries just have generalized collections, you might be surprised what they do have. And even the general books you find there can be of use (as will be discussed later). If you don’t find everything you need or want at the public library, don’t be discouraged. There are other resources available.

Next check with any local educational libraries. Most colleges and universities allow non-students to use their libraries. Almost all have an "in-house use" policy (meaning you can view the books in the library but not check them out), and many even allow non-students to check out books. Give the library a call and find out the following: 1) what their use and checkout policies are, and 2) whether the library's copy machines use coins or a copycard and what the cost is.

Before you go to the library, make a list of potential subjects that might contain information about the area or period that interests you. This should include not only the direct subject, but related subjects as well. A couple of examples would be:

1) If you are interested in a French persona, check under the following subject headings: French, France, Franks, Burgundy, Occitan, Normandy, Merovingian, Languedoc, Foix, Gascony, French history, French archaeology, French art, French religion, French mythology, and French military science.

2) If you are interested in heraldry, check under the following subject headings: heraldry, herald, coat-of-arms, heraldic device, badges, standards, flags, family arms, civic arms, international arms, historical signs, symbols, logos, trademarks, College of Arms, crests, shields, charges, blazons, emblazons and genealogy.

Take along with you to the library the following items: the list of potential subjects, paper and/or notecards, writing instruments and coins for the copy machine or money to purchase a copycard.

As soon as you get to the library, check the card catalog for books on the subjects on your list. While checking the card catalogue you will find that many of subjects have cross-references listed for the subjects you are interested in. Write them down and be sure to take a look at those sources as well. This is very important, as many times the library will have a subject shelved in multiple locations, particularly if some are available for check out but others are for reference use only.

One area that is greatly overlooked is the children's section. Children's history books are often excellent primers. And if you are just beginning to do research on a subject, they can lay a solid foundation of understanding that more advanced books may overlook.

Once you have collected all the books that look promising, it is time to evaluate them. Most likely you will find several that are helpful, a few that have just a couple of sections that are relevant to your needs, and some that are not useful to you. Take notes as you evaluate the books. Make notes about the usefulness of each book. If you wish to save yourself time, photocopy the sections from the books that have only a few pages dealing with your needs. Be sure to note on the copies which book they are from.

Be sure to write down the author, title, publisher, publishing date, and the ISBN number of every book that you get useful information from. Or photocopy the title page and the back of title page (where the publishing information, copyright date and ISBN are located). This will come in handy when preparing any documentation you need in the future and for giving to others who may come to you for information, so they can locate the book.

From the very helpful books (whether you check them out or use them at the library) gather all the information you need into notes. Keep separate pages for each book. Be sure to write down page numbers of sections that you might want to quote.

At this point most people feeling they have exhausted all their local resources. However, this is not the case. Remember it was said that even the general books on a subject would prove useful? Here’s how. Most, if not all, of the books you have looked through have a listing of bibliographies in the back. Read through the bibliographies and write down the information listed there on any books that sound like they would add to your research.

Take this bibliographic information to your library’s interlibrary loan office (ILL). Ask the librarians there to show you how to fill out an ILL request form for the books. The ILL librarians search other libraries to see who may have the books you are interested in, and then borrows the books so that you may check them out. In some cases, there may be a small fee attached, depending upon the rarity of the book or the library involved. Please realize that it can take time to find and get books through this process. Be patient. Also realize that sometimes a library will not be able to locate a particular book at another library.

Another method to locate additional books is to check in Books in Print and British Books in Print. All libraries have at least one if not both. These are volumes of listings of books currently in print in the US and/or Britain, organized by author, title, and subject, just like the card catalog. These books can also be requested through interlibrary loan or ordered from your local bookstore. Additionally, Books in Print will list the publishers' address for a particular book, and you can purchase it directly from the publisher.

While doing you research, don’t forget the magazines. Many libraries subscribe to a large number of publications that are useful. Amongst them are Speculum: the Journal of the American Society of Medieval Archaeologists, Archaeology, and Antiquities. Also, most libraries have the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. This is the magazine equivalent to the Book in Print listing. (Feel free to ask your librarian for assistance, if needed.) Magazine articles can be ordered through interlibrary loan just like books, but there may be a photocopy fee. If there is, you get to keep the photocopies.

Another thing to look for is a "final site report" of an archaeological dig. References to a dig are often noted in books. In the book that mentioned the dig, you should find information on which university or organization sponsored the dig. Ask your librarian to assist you in finding the address for them, and write them for information concerning their final site report. The site report will most likely contain line drawings, descriptions, and analysis of every item found at the dig. Please be aware that in many cases the information from a site dig is never published. If this is the case, it will require some additional work on your part to locate where the finds are housed. Usually by again writing to the dig sponsor and requesting such information. Once you have located the finds, send a request to the museum or institution housing them and ask for further information. Most of these places are more than delighted to assist.

As with the books, collect your information from the magazines, journals, and site reports, always making notes, taking photocopies and writing down the source information including the name of articles, the author, the source, the publication date and issue number (if applicable).

Once you have gone through all these processes you have gotten a good start on your research. Be sure to keep your notes and photocopies together in file folders or a notebook cabinet. Review the information from time to time. As you gather new information, be sure to add it to your collection. Check to see how the new information meshes with the old information. As you gain insights and ideas (or questions) about the subject, make notes on them and add them to the file.

As time goes on you will develop a comprehensive amount of information on your subject.

Welcome to research!



Salamandra, Andras.
Beginning Research Techniques: Where to Look for Sources, How to Get Them, and How to Use Them.
Website article:

Barzun, Jacques and Graff, Henry F.
The Modern Researcher
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977.

Gray, Wood.
Historian's Handbook
Houghton Mifflin Company.

Gross, Ronald.
The Independent Scholar's Handbook
Addison-Wesley, 1982.

This article was nominated by the Kingdom of Meridies for the 
2000-2001 William Blackfox Awards.
The article appeared in March & April issue of
The Dragon's Breath,
the newsletter for the
Shire of Wyrmgeist.

1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Ron "Modar" Knight
Baron Modar Neznanich, OPel


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