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Building a Library Research Strategy: Topics & Background

This guide will help students develop a research strategy for finding information for papers or projects.



  1. What are the guidelines for the assignment?
  2. What types of sources do you need? How many?
  3. How long (or in-depth) is the paper supposed to be? 
  4. Who is your audience (academic or non-academic)?


Your instructor may give you specific instructions, prompts, readings, or lists as to what your topic will be about, if so - great! 

If you need help with ideas, here are some places to look.

  1. SVC databases: Try looking at some issue-based databases like:
  2. Websites: Browse through the following websites for ideas:
    •  Allsides, which offers balanced current news headlines.
    • The New York Times archives provides Times Topics for topic ideas.
    • Pew Research topic guide provides an extensive list of topics.

Refining Topics

undefinedTry the "Five W's" to help refine your topic:  

The questions below will help you to investigate and narrow down some ideas about your topic. Circle or highlight names, terms, and ideas that interest you the most. You might turn this into a list of search terms or "keywords."  

  • WHO - Who is affected by your topic?  Don't just think of the focus of your topic but who are the other stakeholders that might be impacted?
  • WHAT - What are the causes and effects of your topic?  What impacts might there be?
  • WHEN - Is there a specific time-period that you might focus on? 
  • WHERE - Is there a certain geographic location to focus on?  
  • WHY - Why is this topic important?  Why should your audience care?

(image from the Noun Project "five" by Adam Zubin, MV)

Background Information


Looking at background information can:

  • Help you get a basic understanding or overview of your topic,
  • Help you identify important dates, places, themes, people, and other stakeholders
  • Can be a good way to establish key words and/or search terms,
  • Remember that although it is helpful, instructors do not always consider background information a viable source for your research. Make sure you know how they feel about it before you cite these kinds of sources.


Some instructors will allow you to use Wikipedia as a background source, but check first!

1 Minute Videos About Topics

Tutorial: How to Use CREDO Reference Database

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