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4.4 The Research Essay -- Off to the Library

Make no mistake, beginning research means beginning at the library. The library is your best resource for finding out information about your proposed topic. Internet resources may help you conduct some research but you always have to start in the library (more about this in a moment). For the purpose of this and the following sections we'll need an example and I know no better example than the one I used above. So, we'll imagine that you are enrolled in a course on Revolutionary Europe, 1750-1850, and you have elected to write some kind of essay on William Godwin. You've seen this thick book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice by Godwin. You've picked it up. It looks interesting. It has an interesting cover. The weight of the book feels good in your hands. You've also seen Godwin's name mentioned a few times in your textbook and once in another book which was assigned for the course. Your instructor, however, never once uttered his name (why not?). You learn that Godwin doesn't get much notice, especially alongside Burke, Paine, Robespierre, Marx, Babeuf, Proudhon and others. In fact, you're curious as to why Godwin rarely gets more than a passing footnote. But there's something about that thick book that interests you.

So you begin to read. First the Introduction, a lengthy essay by Isaac Kramnick. You learn that Godwin was a philosophical anarchist, husband to Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley. You learn that Godwin wrote a number of books, all with political themes. He also wrote a number of novels, among them Caleb Williams and Fleetwood: The New Man of Feeling. You find that Godwin's idea of human perfectibility is fascinating, as fascinating as is his argument that the ultimate reform of government means the annihilation of government. Hey, it's 1996, an election year. People are talking candidates, politics and voting. Along comes Godwin, two hundred years in the past. He views all political associations (or parties) as inconsistent with the principles of political justice: "The whole is then wound up, with that flagrant insult upon all reason and justice, the deciding upon truth by the casting up of numbers." So much for politics! You turn off MSNBC's coverage of the Conventions. Godwin seems more interesting. You decide to go with it.

Reading Kramnick's Introduction further, you realize that Godwin was a Dissenter. Hmm, what's that? And that he was brought up in a Calvinist household and later became an atheist and anarchist. You read some anecdote that Godwin relates in his diary about the Sunday his father beat him because he picked up a cat. Hmm, more food for thought. You learn that he influenced Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley or political radicals like Tom Paine and John Thelwall (who's he?). You also discover that he had no dealings with the London Corresponding Society (???) or the Society for Constitutional Information (???) or that he was no advocate of violent revolution. Hmm, a radical anarchist writing at the peak of the radical stage of the French Revolution (The Terror) has no sympathy for revolution. More questions.

You begin to formulate a picture in your mind...the "image" that we've been talking about all along. You're even more interested at this point. You thumb through the book and find Kramnick's bibliography. You drag out your notebook and begin to write down the names of authors and their books and articles. Good job! That's where it all begins.

You rush off to the library with your rough bibliography and head right to the card catalog or the online terminals. (I won't discuss the use of either card catalogs or online computer catalogs. Their use is fairly straight-forward. Ask a librarian if in doubt.) It's time to start finding these books. But first, you look up Godwin himself. Hunh! There's quite a bit of stuff. You write it all down.

Ford K. Brown, The Life of William Godwin (1926)
David Fleisher, William Godwin: A Study in Liberalism (1951)
Rosalie Glynn Grylls, William Godwin and His Circle (1953)
Don Locke, A Fantasy of Reason: The Life and Thought of William Godwin (1980)
D.H.Monroe, Godwin's Moral Philosophy: An Interpretation of William Godwin (1953)
C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, 2 vols (1876)

You head to the appropriate section of the stacks on the appropriate floor and there you are, "Godwin Central"! You pull those books off the shelves whose titles and authors you had recorded earlier. You glance quickly at each book. You've got a stack ten high. But wait, one of these books is missing! Where is it? Ask the librarian where the book might be. Better yet, and before you ask the library staff, go back to the card catalog and make sure you copied the information correctly. [Even in the most well-organized library, books are often not where they are supposed to be. Perhaps that particular title is getting rebound. Perhaps it's been moved to storage because no one has borrowed it for fifty years. Perhaps it's been stolen. Who knows?]

Find a table. Fast! Sit down. Open your notebook and pick up the first book. Turns out to be a biography written sixty years ago. Interesting. Here's another biography, only this one is less than five years old. You learn that this latter volume was written by an instructor in philosophy at Notre Dame. The other volume was written by a literary critic. Hmm. I wonder if that makes a difference?

You may begin to notice that many of these books say the same thing. They contain biographical information but many of them also focus on that historical topic known as "The French Revolution in English History." Interesting topic. Perhaps you need to re-visit the card catalog and do a bit of research on the French Revolution as well as England in the 1790s. And what about Dissent? Might that not also play a role? After all, who were the Dissenters? Is there a connection between Dissent and radicalism?

You've now spent two hours at the library and you decide that's enough for the day. You leave the library, perhaps to attend your next class. But first you borrow ten books. Your mind is busy at work. Who was Godwin, anyway?

At this stage of the game, all you can hope to accomplish is the collection of a reading list. You have checked several books and brought a few of them home with you. You haven't even begun to tap the journal literature as yet. Still, you feel as if you are just a bit closer to getting this whole research essay together.

But you've forgotten one thing and it's organizational. You need a way to collect and collate all those books (and later journal articles) that you've seen. Enter the 3 x 5 index card. No serious writer of the research essay should leave home without their stash of index cards. But what are these things for? Why can't you just write all this stuff down on pieces of paper and keep them in your notebook? Easy. They get lost. They are disorganized. It's tough to alphabetize a list of books when you've got five references on one sheet of paper, two on another and one on still one more. What do you do? Here's the solution, and it's a simple one.

First, go buy a pack of 100 3 x 5 index cards, any color. Grab half the deck and place a rubber band around them. Next, carry them whenever you go to the library to do more research. Every time you see a book that you might use, enter its bibliographical information on one index card. You can do this at home as well. Whenever you encounter a likely "find," write the author's name and title along with the bibliographic data on one of the cards. When you next go to the library, you can verify the resource. If your library doesn't have the title you can do one of two things: (1) forget the resource or (2) order the title from Interlibrary Loan (ask your librarian!). The information should be entered in the exact order in which that title will appear in your finished bibliography. For example:

Goodwin, Albert. The Friends of Liberty: The English Democratic Movement in the Age of the French Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.
Godwin, William. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Happiness. Edited by Isaac Kramnick. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

I repeat, record all the required bibliographical information exactly as it will appear in the finished product. DO NOT USE ABBREVIATIONS! This is important. For example, does "Brit." mean Britain or British or Britannia? Perhaps you meant to say Briton? See what I mean? Regarding the "style" or "format" of the finished bibliography is concerned, at this point you should ask your professor what style manual he prefers, that is, if he hasn't already told you (and he should have). One rule of thumb is this: whatever style you use for your paper (and that means spacing, margins, footnotes, citations, etc.), you should never mix formats. In other words, be consistent. While a discussion of the various style manuals is beyond the scope of this document, the student would do well to consult one of the following. All three manuals have gone through several editions so make sure you use the latest one.

  • Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations

  • Joseph Gibaldi and Walter S. Achtert, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers

  • The Chicago Manual of Style for Authors, Editors, and Copywriters

A number of citation style sheets have also begun to appear on the World Wide Web. I list only a few of them here:

You should also record the call number of the book. Why? Simple. Since you can only borrow the book for a short period of time, it will eventually need to be returned. If you need to refer to it again in the future, why go through the card catalog again? After all, what these 3 x 5 cards will really be doing for you is building your own card catalog! You should also record the date you read the book and also record any notes about the general utility of the book. For example, using the Albert Goodwin book above as an example, I have recorded on my index card: DA/520/.G6/1979 (the call number), the bibliographic reference, a note that says pp.475-78 are specifically about Godwin and that I read the book February 26, 1984 and again on April 21. There's another note that reads "Godwin as minor radical---mentioned only in connection with more popular members of the LCS." In other words, I have annotated this book.

You ought to enter the proper information on every book or journal article you encounter during your research. Even if you never use a specific title in your essay, you should still keep the index card. Make two piles: one for the references you will use in your essay and another pile for those you will not. I used this technique religiously for four years of my graduate education as well as four years of my doctoral research and I now have a catalog of index cards that fills five eighteen inch boxes (that's roughly eight feet!).

When you are searching either the hard copy card catalog or the online catalog, always have keywords in mind. Obviously, if you are researching William Godwin, you will search by his last name. But, what other key words might be of service to you while you are conducting a search? How about running a general search for: History, England, 18th Century or History, France, 18th Century, French Revolution, Radicalism. Searching via keywords is perhaps easier using online terminals than it is card catalogs. For one thing, it involves less physical movement. You stand in front of a terminal and input keywords, hit Enter and then let the database do the walking. The catalog at Sterling Library at Yale is immense. So too is the one at The British Library in London. (After all, the combined card catalogs of Sterling and the British Library must tally somewhere over 40 million volumes!) Your university will probably have both hard copy and online catalogs and I suggest that you use both. Keep in mind that just because the university's holdings have been made available online does not necessarily mean that all the entries are there. Of course, this is true for card catalogs as well. If you get stuck, ask the librarian---they get paid to assist patrons find information. They are also excellent resources for further information.

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