This is the "Research for a Paper" page of the "PAS 180 -- Race and Ethnicity in American Society" guide.
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PAS 180 -- Race and Ethnicity in American Society  

Last Updated: Apr 19, 2012 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

Research for a Paper Print Page

Research Steps

Step One – Selecting a Topic

Your instructors may assign a topic for your research paper, but very often your instructor may let you choose your own topic within a certain area of the course you are taking. To select a topic for your research paper, you need to choose a subject that interests you as well as to consider the availability of the resources.

Sources that can help you select research topics:

  • Subject Encyclopedias
    • Can familiarize you with some of the different contents within which your topic has been discussed in a discipline.
    • You can find encyclopedia in the library reference collection easily by limiting your search to "Reference"

    • Examples of subject encyclopedias:

  • CQ Researcher
    CQ Researcher provides you with resources on current events and controversial issues.  It covers overview, background, current situation, outlook, pro/con, chronology, maps/graphs, bibliography as well as the next step and update for a particular event. You can search CQ Researcher database both on- and off-campus. 
    • Click on Articles from the Library web homepage (
    • Select CQ Researcher from the database A-Z list or select the database by clicking the name of the database from "Choose a database by name" pull-down list
    • Please take a close look at the bibliography, and many of the citations are linked to the original articles, so make a good use of them. 
  • Clio Notes

    • Clio Notes included in America: History & Life and Historical Abstracts databases provide research topics by time period, event, and issue. 
    • You can find a link to the Clio Notes within the two databases on the top of the page. 

  • Textbooks -- Introduce a topic and generally include a bibliography of books and articles consulted
  • Articles -- Give you a chance to see what's been written on your topic.

Step Two – Narrowing Down Your Topic

Once you have decided on a topic for your paper, you need to make sure your topic is neither too broad nor too narrow and your research question can be researched. For example, “school integration” is a topic. You need to ask a question or form a statement about the school integration, such as:

The 'Brown' v. 'Board of Education' case of 1954 was perhaps the most pivotal Supreme Court case and decision of the 1950's. What were its implications for the Civil Rights movement? Why do some historians believe that the decision did little to improve racial equality in the United States?

These questions or statements can help you narrow down a general subject area into a manageable topic that focuses on a clearly identified issue so that you can examine it thoroughly within the allotted time and space. Some of the methods you can use to narrow down your topics are:

  • Time period: last 10 years, 20th century, …
  • Place: U.S., California, So Cal, L.A., …
  • Person/Group: politician, actor, ethnic group, …
  • Event/Aspect: Millennium, religious, …

Once you have a focused topic (normally in a question or statement format), you can mark keywords and develop alternate words and ready to use them to conduct searches in library catalogs or databases. Using the example above, we can develop a list of keywords:

Question or Statement

The 'Brown' v. 'Board of Education' case of 1954 was perhaps the most pivotal Supreme Court case and decision of the 1950's. What were its implications for the Civil Rights movement? Why do some historians believe that the decision did little to improve racial equality in the United States?


  • Brown
  • Board of Education
  • Civil Rights, Civil rights movement 
  • Implications, impacts, influence
  • Racial equality
  • Inner-city schools, public schools

Step Three-- Understanding the Need for Secondary and/or Primary Sources

First, we need to understand what primary and secondary sources are. 

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format. (Primary Sources at Yale:

To find more information about primary sources, how to find primary sources, go to Primary Source Guide

Secondary Sources are materials that digest, analyze, evaluate and interpret inforamtion contained within primary sources or other secondary sources. Examples of secondary sources are:

  • Books, such as biographies (not autobiographies), textbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks
  • Articles, such literature reviews, commentaries, research articles in all subject disciplines
  • Criticism of works in literature, art and music

You want to find a list of secondary source materials relevant to your topic, or if necessary, you need to conduct a literature review to get a list of essential books and articles for your topic.  The purposes of starting your research with secondary sources are:

  • to find background information about your topic
  • to be aware of scholarly research in the area of your topic
  • to be able to narrow down or broaden your topic

Subject encyclopedias, text book reserve items assigned by professors, databases, adn CLIO Notes in America: History & Life and Historical Abstracts are all good places to start your secondary sources research.

Step Four-- Understand How to Use AND, OR, WILDCARD and TRUNCATION

  • AND -- narrows your search to retrieve only records that contain both or more words
  • OR -- retrieves matches for either of the two or more terms, so you get more records
  • WILDCARD -- uses a symbol within a word to replace one letter, e.g.: wom*n will search both women and woman
  • TRUNCATION -- uses a symbol at the end of a word to replace any number of letters, e.g.: child* will search both child and children

Watch a Boolean Logic Video at:

Step Five -- Conducting Search


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