Help with Finding Literature and Research 1


You will be familiar with techniques to locate relevant information for projects and essays. However you may find that you need to ‘step up a gear’ when you write your project or dissertation and this section provides some search tips and resources. Before deciding the topic of your project or dissertation you will want to do some background research to gain familiarity with the evidence-base for your topic. This will help you to refine a title. Throughout the stages of planning and writing your project you will undertake a range of search activities from quite general to very specific. The biggest challenge is to be efficient in your use of time because so much information is now available. Information is easily available via the Internet, but that brings its own challenges for locating, reviewing, relevance, authority, sifting for quality, organising and using information appropriately. So good search skills are essential, as well as techniques for recording and organising your findings.

Use your library and other internal support

Library catalogue keyword searches are a good place to start. If you start your literature search with a keyword search then be prepared to be shocked by the amount of 'hits' you receive. If you have too many, then your search criteria may be too broad; too few and likewise your criteria too narrow or your subject might be too ground breaking (i.e. there is not enough for you to read, analyse, critique or reformulate into your thesis). Your topic might need to be re-thought. At this point you could call on the help of a librarian.
Library staff is available to answer general enquiries in person, by telephone and online (by email or online form). If it is a subject-specific enquiry subject librarians or subject specialists are usually the best people to help, including advice regarding special collections. Use your subject librarian and ask for an appointment to discuss your queries and have your questions ready.

If you have queries about searches think of key words and terms to start with. The librarian may have ideas on other helpful search terms.

How can a librarian help with choosing a topic?

It is the skill of the librarian which can help you to identify relevant bibliographical databases to search in order to identify appropriate materials. The librarian can then help with:

The power of little words

The wonderful Boolean operators are sure to bring a glazed look to the students until they realise just how powerful those little words AND, NOT and OR can be! When you realise that instead of having to trawl through hundreds of references on, let's say, 'binge drinking' you can introduce other concepts into the topic such as 'students' and 'social class' to make it more specific and produce a manageable list of references at the stroke of a key, then you become very turned on to Boolean operators.
Have you ever thought about wildcards and truncation when you have scant references? Truncation involves the stem of a word.  It can be very rewarding when one shortened word can save three or four separate searches. So for example, using a word like 'interact' as the keyword, will allow your database to hunt down words that begin with the letters of your keyword search such as 'interaction', 'interacting' and 'interactivity'.  The word 'critic' will return words such as 'critic,' 'critics', 'critical' and so on. In the previous example the term "students" can be truncated whilst adding "undergraduate" OR "postgraduate" as the synonym increases the scope. As the number of results grows, there are more devices which shrink your reading again by limiting to references identified by dates, language, peer review, and full text availability.

Library support

Institutional libraries can provide a wealth of support and instead of reproducing this guidance here we recommend that you use your library (or those of other institutions’) to refresh your knowledge and skills. Libraries have online and paper-based guidance on a wide range of information issues. Typically this includes:

Libraries may also run training in-house on many of the above and you may find, depending upon your individual learning style, that attending one or more of these may increase your skills and confidence more quickly than using online tutorials.

Search tools

There is often a lot of guidance on resources and search tools available from other sources in your institution, for example

The Joint Information Systems Council Resource Guide for the Social Sciences (
This lists the range of resources that has been set up specifically to meet the needs of those working and studying in the social sciences. The guide focuses on resources funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) of the Higher and Further Education Funding Councils of the UK, and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Finding data

Datasets freely available to the HE community (registration required) for non-commercial purposes, or available via subscription:


UK Data Archive which has the largest collection of digital data for the social sciences and humanities in the UK

Official UK statistical data is available via the Office for National Statistics web site at
Literature searching

Not everything can be found on the Internet

When you conduct a search, you locate a book that your search has highlighted and you can't help but notice what’s placed around it – and those books can also assist you! Not everything that you need for final dissertations will be in the Library. Even with the growth of electronic resources such as full text databases and package journals deals there will be a conference report, journal article, thesis, newspaper report or book which is not instantly available. Librarians are happy to explain the different schemes for obtaining such materials, the most obvious one being the British Library Document Supply Service.
In addition to the learning experience of writing a dissertation which helps you to gain a good degree, you will learn skills of information literacy that you can use again and again.


Key Questions

Further reading

HART C.(2001). Doing a Literature Search: A Comprehensive Guide for the Social Sciences. London, Sage

Web resources

Guidance for literature searching:

1 © Julia Waldman, Dr Malcolm Todd (Leeds Metropolitan) and Janet Morton (University of Leeds).


Author biographies