Study Guide: Independent Research
An illustration from the eighth-century manuscript of the Bible known as the Lindisfarne Gospels. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Whether you are simply pursuing your own interests or researching for an EPQ or coursework, studying the Viking Age can be a daunting prospect. As it has rarely formed part of the school curriculum, not many school or public libraries are likely to contain anything but the most basic introductory material in their collections. If you are looking to find more detail on a particular topic, there are two stages through which you must progress. The first is to identify the texts that are going to help you to explore that topic further. The second is to gain access to the copies of those texts. The first of these stages tends to be a bit more straightforward than the second, but there is a knack to both: this guide aims to assist you in acquiring that knack. The process is somewhat like being a detective, and although it can be frustrating when leads meet a dead-end, it can also be very satisfying when everything goes well.
Identifying texts: Drawing up a Preliminary Bibliography
This is the first step in any research process. It takes you from having only a couple of broad sources of knowledge to draw upon to having a list of potential resources which can offer you detail in different areas. It is possible to do this relatively quickly: although you will be trawling through different sources trying to find relevant information, you do not always need to read all of them in great detail. That can come later, if necessary.
Increasingly, most of your research is likely to be done on the internet, due to the growing availability of online resources and the lack of records in physical collections. Nevertheless, sometimes libraries are the best place to start. Most public libraries—and possibly even school libraries—will have basic overviews of the period or popular history that addresses the period. These may be useful in the first stages of the research process. The advice that follows covers the use of both the internet and physical resources that you might find in a library.
Overviews, Popular Histories and Encyclopaedias
How to find overviews, popular histories and encyclopaedias? Here, libraries have an advantage, because they often clearly label their sections. If you are doing research on the Vikings, you could simply go over to the Medieval History section and browse. Beyond that, using library searches and the internet to find books is pretty much the same process. Keep searches to a small number of keywords. Don’t google single words. Googling ‘Vikings’, for example, will mostly bring up results related to the TV show of the same name.
In order to be considered intellectually rigorous, a study should make some effort to cite its sources, otherwise there is nothing to prove to you that the information it contains is genuine. Some popular histories can be pretty bad at citing their sources. The first thing you do when picking up an overview, popular history or encyclopaedia is to see if it has a bibliography, footnotes or endnotes. If it has no referencing of any type, it is probably not a good idea to cite it in your project. There are exceptions to this: for example, if your project considers how knowledge of a historical period or its literature is disseminated, such sources may be useful: however, they should not be used as the basis for your own argument about the period itself.
If you are researching on the internet, some of the biggest pitfalls are encountered at this stage. The internet is full of information on almost every topic you can imagine, but it must be carefully navigated. Anyone can upload their own thoughts on a topic into a blog but not everyone will be as rigorous a scholar as you—they may not be clear about when they are expressing an opinion rather than a fact, and their deductions may not stand up to scrutiny or consider all of the available evidence. Often then may have an obvious or hidden bias; sometimes they may even be trying to sell you something! This doesn’t mean that such sites can’t be useful, however. Once again, it is a question of looking beyond the written content of a site to the sources that lie behind it. To an even greater extent than with physical books, if a site does not cite their sources, you probably shouldn’t cite it in your research—and anything it says should be taken with a huge pinch of salt.
If you are approaching a topic from scratch then it can be a good idea to read the overviews that you come across. However, if you already have a broad idea of the topic you’d like to investigate, it is not necessary to read all of the overview. It is very easy to get bogged down with trying to read everything, when at the end of the day very little of the overview will be relevant. It is better to use the contents to skip to the most appropriate sections. If you want, you can even skim over these pretty quickly, focusing on the sources they cite.
Properly cited sources will provide you with all the information you need to look up the source yourself. This includes the author(s) of the work being cited and its title. If the work is an article or chapter, the citation will also give the title of the book or journal it is contained in and its editors. This is important because not all library catalogues will allow you to search for individual articles: instead you have to search for the whole book. If the article is in a journal (also known as a periodical) the volume of the journal will be given. Finally, citations will give publication information—how many editions of the work are there; when and where was it published? Knowing the date of publication is particularly useful for journals, as it can make it easier to find the right volume on the shelves.
Unfortunately, there are many different ways to cite sources and books will vary depending on the policy of their publisher. In some books, all of the information may be listed in a footnote or endnote. In other cases, you will find an abbreviated citation in the text and will then have to turn to the bibliography to get the full reference. Besides footnotes or endnotes, some publishers will ask for references to be incorporated into the main body of the text itself, usually as simply an author’s surname and the date of the publication in brackets. These can often be the hardest references to find (Allport, 2019).
Once you have a list of abbreviated citations, it is simply a case of turning to the bibliography and looking up the full references. While you’re there, skim through the rest in case there are works that look like they might be relevant which you may have missed earlier on. A bibliography is also a useful place to find editions and translations of primary sources. Most bibliographies will be divided into two sections: primary sources and secondary literature (i.e. scholarship).
The same broad method applies to searching on the internet, with the added advantage that you have CTRL+F to help you find what you’re looking for! Websites that cite their sources usually do so in endnotes that are hyperlinked throughout the main body of the text. One of the most diligent websites in this regard is Wikipedia. While frequently maligned as a scholarly resource, Wikipedia is a fantastic way to get to begin your research if you are looking for direction. This is due to its extensive citation system, and the bibliography that accompanies each article. Some of the sources cited will be more dubious than others, but the more legitimate sources (as a general rule, published works are to be preferred over news articles or blogs) can be valuable pointers to further research. Nevertheless, Wikipedia itself should not be cited as a source. Instead, use it to get a broad overview of the subjects you are interested in, before following up on the sources that are cited.
Once you’ve got the hang of this process, you will be able to quickly draw up bibliographies of potential research leads. Overviews may cite primary sources or detailed, highly localised studies, but they are more likely to point you towards thematic analyses which draw together a range of sources and scholarship to argue a particular point. It is a good idea to read these sources in more detail than the overviews, as they are your primary means of engaging with scholarly debate. The references in these thematic analyses will point you towards other analyses arguing different points and toward primary sources and detailed studies whose conclusions they have considered.
Citations and Bibliographies
How to access records
Once you have drawn up a bibliography, you will need to start getting access to the material. This is often the biggest hurdle for independent researchers and you may find that you are unable to find many of the items on your bibliography. This can be frustrating, but won’t necessarily harm your research. After all, it would never be possible to read everything that had been published on a given topic. Nevertheless, you may find that the exact nature of your project changes based on the research that you are able to access.
Reading Room, the British Library. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
This guide focuses on ways of accessing material without paying money. As a College or Senior School student, you have no obligation to pay for access to resources and if there is something you can’t access without paying, often the best option is to treat it as a dead end and try to get hold of the information somewhere else. Academic books are often very expensive to make up for their limited demand. On top of that, online journals will often hide their content behind a paywall that can only be bypassed with a university account. Translations of primary sources and popular histories tend to be much cheaper, but even still you should only really consider buying them if you think it will be useful for you beyond the purposes of the project (such as for your own enjoyment). Often books might be available at a reduced price second-hand. There are a number of useful websites for finding second-hand books. A useful online resource is Bookfinder.com, which allows you to find books being sold by sites such as Amazon, Abebooks or eBay and find the best deal.
School and Public Libraries
As this guide has observed, school and public libraries are only likely to have broad overviews or popular histories, but they may surprise you and it’s worth checking out what they have. In particular, public libraries may have some of the most well-known journals associated with your topic—most of the articles in your bibliography will be in journals.
It is also worth investigating your nearest university library, if there is one close by. Many university libraries will allow College or Senior School students to access their collections although they may require ID or a letter of reference from a schoolteacher. If you can’t find information about this on a university library’s website, it is a good idea to email a query to a member of staff from the Contact section of the website. University Libraries are likely to have a much broader selection of relevant materials.
Although many online journals require an account (often requiring payment for those without a university affiliation), an increasing number have been embracing the concept of open access. It is therefore always worth visiting the website of any journal that has articles you are interested in, just in case those articles are available for download. However, just because a journal makes their volumes available online, this doesn’t mean that all of the articles in the volume will be accessible: accessibility is decided at the discretion of the author and the journal will often charge the author a large amount of money for the privilege of making their work open access.
Academia.edu and ResearchGate
Academia.edu and ResearchGate are portals for academics to contact one another and disseminate their work. Often, academics will make their publications freely available for download on these sites for those who have an account (which costs nothing). However, in order to meet the conditions of the books or journals in which these works are published, many of these works will not be the final version of the text, meaning that the page numbers and formatting may not match up to the official publication.
JSTOR is one of the biggest repositories of online academic resources—mostly articles. It requires an account to access, but a free account can be created which will give you access to a limited amount of articles per month.
Google Article/Book Title + PDF/Edition/Translation
If specific online repositories like the ones mentioned above are failing you, then one time-honoured method is simply to run a Google search for the article, perhaps with PDF after it: this can be a great way to find resources that are hosted online in counterintuitive places. Google searches can often be a good way to get hold of primary sources if you search the name of the text and then ‘translation’ or ‘edition’. However, this is mostly useful as a way to access the text quickly: many translations found online are done by students who are barely familiar with the language. If possible, it is a good idea to try and cite proper editions. The Key Primary Sources page of this website offers links to many online versions of texts with varying reliability.
Google Books/Amazon Look Inside
When every other option has failed, there are sites that will give you access to a limited preview of a book. Google Books is one such resource and the ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon is another. This is not ideal for reading whole books, as many pages will be cut out of the preview. However, the pages that are cut back are often not fixed (particularly on Amazon), meaning that if you know what you are looking for it is often possible to search for it and be taken to the right pages, even if previously they were not available to view. This can be very useful for finding page numbers for your references, especially when the online articles you have come across are not the final version.