The Research Process

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The research methods many people were taught in school is not very helpful for many other kinds of research, and this is perhaps particularly true for research for religious projects. This article briefly describes an approach that may work better for you and some other tips.

Ways to do research:

There are obviously a lot of different approaches to how you go about the process of doing research.

The one many people learned in school (at least initially) is the bibliographic method. This relies on learning how to identify “reliable sources” or the sources everyone agrees are authoritative. This, it turns out, works really well for some topics (there’s a fair bit of general agreement about what authoritative sources there are in medicine, or who highly respected historians are, for example). But this method doesn’t work so well with many other topics, especially when it’s not always clear what the best sources are.

I strongly prefer a method known as the Information Search Process model, initially developed by Carol Kulthau, a librarian and professor at Rutgers for many years. I like it both because it’s a lot more flexible for many topics, and because it directly talkes about some of the emotions and feelings people have about research.

(You can read one of the initial papers about it here, and below is a video from Singapore University that describes it well.)

The basic stages of the method are:

1) Initiation : You realise you have a question. Feeling uncertain, apprehensive, or uncomfortable are pretty common here. We don’t like realising we don’t know something we need or want to know.

2) Selection: We identify the thing that we want to learn more about. Often, this is where that beginning uncertainty chances to optimisim. The thing I tell people when I’m teaching them about research as a librarian is that one of the things we’ve learned through research is that telling people that the uncertainty is normal (and that it will get better) helps a lot, so I’m telling them that.

3) Exploration: We start looking for information and seeing what’s out there. This can be another point where confusion or uncertainty are really common, because we may not feel like we can sort through all the different options. We might find things that contradict each other, and not know how to resolve that. Again, this is a normal part of the process, and many people feel it, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing research wrong – it just means you need some more information or resources or help to figure out the next steps.

4) Formulation: We begin to gather things together and begin to figure out how things might fit together, some possible answers to our current questions. As this happens, it’s common to feel more confidence again, like you’re sorting out the pieces.

5) Collection: We gather more information now that we have a better idea of our goals, and we can do more focused searching for things that help us with what we need.

6) Presentation: As Kuhlthau says:  “the search is completed with a new understanding enabling the person to explain his or her learning to others or in someway put the learning to use.”

Now, I think there are some ways this model is not a great fit for religious or specifically Pagan research without some editing (I’ve been working on and off on a book about that for over 10 years: this is not the essay to explain it in!) But you can probably see that it’s a more flexible and iterative model than the bibliographic one, and in particular it allows us to explore multiple possible solutions fairly easily.

Let’s look at some other things that can help your research process

Doing research: practical steps

Starting out:

As noted above, one of the hardest and scariest parts of research for many people is figuring out an initial question. Spending a little time with this can be very helpful. Making a note of what you’d like to know (and maybe why) can help you get to the more interesting and enjoyable stages a lot more easily. 

Research is a process – there will be glitches, dead ends, and frustrations. This is entirely normal, and happens even for people who do their whole lives. What people who research all the time learn is that those glitches aren’t about them as a person – they just may mean needing to look at different resources, ask for help, or realise that maybe they’re asking a question that can’t easily be researched given their current situation. (Some things, there aren’t answers to yet!)

These projects can be complex! Here are some things that can help as you get started. 

  • Gather information you already know, consider the sources. (Are there independent sources, or are you relying on family stories?)
  • Write it down so you can share it and take notes on it. (For people: full names, nicknames, dates of birth/death/marriage, locations)
  • Consider a citation management tool. (Zotero is a free browser tool specifically for research. Also Evernote, other note apps.)
  • Figure out what you’d like to know more about and maybe why. (Do you have specific questions? A story you’d like to follow?)
  • Keep your eyes out for other people fascinated in some part of your thing. (If you find these people, you can save a lot of time, effort, and frustration.)

Find Resources:

Finding resources can feel a bit overwhelming, but fortunately there are some good solutions.

If you’re researching something that people teach college courses on, one good place to start is looking for guides from colleges and universities about their courses (one of the most popular software tools libraries use is called LibGuide, so searching on LibGuide and a couple of terms like “Greek history” or “mythology” or whatever can be a good thing to try. Sometimes it works wonderfully, and if it doesn’t work quickly, move on to other approaches.

These guides will link to some material you probably can’t get access to easily (subscription databases you need a login for) but many of them also link to widely recommended books, quality websites, and they’ll include things like terminology and subject headings that can help.

Another approach is to look at Wikipedia and dig into the sources mentioned on those pages (as well as using additional subject terms, dates, etc. to help guide your searches.) Don’t trust the actual text of a Wikipedia article without checking it out further, but as a tool to help you find resources, it’s great. There’s a lot more about how to look deeper at Wikipedia articles in my essay over here.

Another good tip is to check author notes and references for useful sources. Besides the obvious “these are the books I referenced”, they’ll often mention libraries, collections, or people who were useful, and those can be good leads to follow.

Ask a librarian:

I’m a bit biased, but librarians are there to help with these kinds of questions, and we have significant training to help us do that. (Check out other links in the Learning section here for more about how that works). Librarians can:

  • Point you at electronic resources your library has. (Many have subscriptions to or other genealogical services as well as to other databases, ebook services, etc.)
  • Help you identify places to look for more information. (Regional resources, specific organisations, archives, etc.)
  • Find books to give you more context about a time or place. (General information that can help details make more sense.)
  • Figure out what information might be available. (Types of records or materials, also what isn’t available. F’ex 1890 census)
  • Many have email / online chat options if you can’t get to the library. (Great for mobility issues, or questions where you have details.)

Academic sources:

These can be tricky to get access to, but there are some solutions. This article elsewhere on the site has more information about various of these resources. 

  • Interlibrary loan allows libraries to get books and articles from each other. (Great if you want a couple of specific obscure articles. Some limits apply.)
  • Check colleges and universities near you or that you have associations with. (Some allow database access on site or alum/local access, or a ‘friends of the library’ membership.) 
  • Ask your public library. (Some systems have access to academic databases.) 
  • Check out specific databases or resource. (JSTOR’s personal subscription program, subscription library memberships.)
  • Online sites can help you identify articles. (Google Scholar, academia.eduDon’t pay for them through there! Try interlibrary loan first.


Sometimes you’ll be doing research that requires accessing very specific resources, and they may not be local to you. Many libraries are willing to help with at least some research questions by email (if it’s something that’s specific to their collection, of course – start with your local public library for general questions.) To get the most out of these interactions, here are some tips.

  • Read the library / archives / organisation website first. (They may have useful information or online resources.)
  • Be clear in your initial email what your goal is. (They may know of resources you aren’t aware of.)
  • Make reasonable requests and allow plenty of time.  Time, staff, resources may be limited, but they’ll tell you what’s available. Don’t expect them to agree to questions that will take hours of research, but with specialised collections, a well focused question that may take you hours may be something they can answer in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Understand they may be limited in what they can share. (Laws around privacy of health and educational information, for example.)
  • A lot of information may now be available digitally. (Some information you may need to visit, or find a researcher to visit for you.)

On this last point, many state historical collections or major archives collections have lists of researchers in the area who you can contract with to look at specific materials. It’s especially common in genealogy.

If you do end up visiting a specialised collection, here are some tips:

  • Plan ahead. They may need to arrange staff or already have other researchers visiting. Their website or other information will usually make the preferred practice clear. 
  • Make use of online resources to decide what you want to look at. They may need to pull items in advance, or already have scans of some items. (Where I work, if someone just needs a few things we haven’t digitised yet, we can often provide scans in a couple of days, so long as the items aren’t restricted access.)
  • Follow instructions given. They’ll help you find the right place, and plan your visit. 
  • Understand that delicate materials need special handling. Using gloves is less common these days, but expect to be supervised and have limited items available at one time in most special collections or archives spaces. 
  • Personal photos are often okay (no flash) – much faster than copying. Check about policies, and don’t share without permission.

Gathering information and putting it together:

This is mostly outside the scope of what I can do in this article, because there are so many variations, but here are some tips:

  • Keep an open mind. The first information you find may not be the best information.
  • Look at where sources got their information from. Ideally, look for independent sources saying the same thing (not sources that all rely on one sources, though sometimes that’s basically what there is.)
  • Keep different viewpoints in mind. How we view the same basic information can look very different depending on perspective, lived experience, understanding of other cultures, etc. (The notes from my historical research and Pagan practice presentation have more about this.)
  • Be honest about what you do and don’t know, and don’t be afraid to ask more questions.

Most of all, don’t be afraid to pause, or say “Hey, I need an outside perspective.” Good research isn’t a fast process, a lot of the time. It really benefits by taking some time to sit with it, figure out new rounds of questions, and repeat. This can be frustrating sometimes – it feels like you’re never done – but it can also be really rewarding. Taking good notes helps a lot in being able to pick up again when you’re ready.

Be your best self:

Research is a skill. No one is born knowing this! Everyone has to learn. Good researchers respect what they don’t know, and get help with it. Thinking about how to do better research is good for you, and good for your end goals, and worth doing for several reasons.

More to the point, everyone has big gaping holes in their knowledge. You may not see them with experts because experts are mostly talking about the things they know a lot about. Recognising your own gaps – and your own strengths, the unique things you bring to your topic of interest – are huge parts of doing research well.

Being curious, hanging out with other people who are good researchers or intellectually curious and creative, and learning about how research works will all improve your skills over time. (There are some recommendations for specific sources here.

And finally, mostly because I love this video, a video from the University of Bergen about why plagiarism is a bad thing and why keeping track of your sources is good and for your research. (It is the most high production value video on the topic I’ve ever seen.)

[Last edited March 17, 2017]

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