Guide to Library Research
Mary Livermore Library
Unit 2: Refining a Topic

Narrow Your Topic
If your searches turn up thousands of sources in each of these databases, you may need to narrow your topic by adding more subtopics.


Example: You like history and decide to use this word as your keyword, but you come up with tens of thousands of books and articles, as well as more than 800,000 Internet sites.


Try adding some keywords referring to a specific place or time period (Czech Republic Historyor 18th century United States history), a specific group of people (Lumbee history or African-American history), or a specific event (Lewis and Clark expeditionor Gulf War). Finally, reflect on what you have learned from your research thus far from subject encyclopedias and other books, articles, and webpages; try to identify specific issues or controversies related to your topic. If you read that scholars differ on the role of Sacagawea in the Lewis and Clark expedition, jot down some keywords that might turn up articles on this controversy and do a new search.

Broaden Your Topic
Sometimes you may encounter an opposite problem. Perhaps you conducted some test searches with your keywords and found very few sources. Before you change your topic, use some different keywords. Maybe the ones you chose are not the same ones that librarians or Web authors use when they refer to this topic. For example, maybe other people generally use GPA instead of grade-point average.


If you continue to struggle, even after consulting a librarian, you may need to broaden your topic. 

Example: You want to write about an issue in your home community, such as acid rain in Brunswick County.


You may have trouble finding enough information about the problem of acid rain in this specific county for an extensive research paper or presentation; however, you can increase your chances of finding sufficient information if you broaden the topic a bit to acid rain in North Carolina or acid rain in the southeastern United States. You could also consider an alternate focus, such as air pollution, or look at a different region, such as California, Massachusetts, New York, or Illinois, which have large industrial cities, major sources of air pollution.