Online research is easy or daunting depending on how well you can weave through all the information out there on the web. Here are a few librarian-approved sources and easy-to-do tricks—most of which you can try at home in your pajamas—to save time while digging deep into the virtual stacks.
1. Find out what you have access to
Though not often publicized, and sometimes veiled as “e-resources” or “digital collections,” libraries have growing selections of online goodies that you can access with your library card. Download magazines you want to pitch to, research new story angles and find niche publications for your work by signing up for a Zinio account through your public library (for example, the Toronto Public Library). You get free, unlimited access to the current digital editions of hundreds of magazines, and in some cases, back issues. Need to reference works by Alice Munro or Malcolm Gladwell? Download their ebooks through OverDrive.
2. Tap into databases, high-quality web resources and guides
Maybe your first instinct was to Google your topic. Now you have to back up your research with factual information from authoritative sources. Try searching paid databases and web portals via your library for newspaper articles, journals, consumer reports, statistics, encyclopedias and more. If you’re new to a subject, guides are one of the best starting points—search for “guides to [topic].”
3. Access hard-to-get (for free) research
Science, health and medical journals usually aren’t freely available to the public. Nonetheless, it’s worth a shot to search Google Scholar for full-text articles. If you study or teach at a university, there’s a good chance you have an all-access pass via the library website to subject-specific databases containing journal articles, abstracts and other types of documents. Start with the topic and then dive into the suggested resources to gather what you need.
4. Use social media as a research tool
Even if Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn aren’t your thing, they’re a gold mine when it comes to discovering new businesses and interview sources, and listening in on both expert and non-expert commentary. One neat trick you can do on Facebook is pull up posts, discussions and any other mentions of a particular topic by adding a hashtag to your search term. For instance, typing “#snow” into the search box will bring up public posts and comments from people on your friends list that mention snow. This is particularly useful for newsworthy events.
5. Back up documents you may need later
Web links break all the time. Content is taken down or revised. In some cases, entire websites disappear. Documenting webpages for research purposes is as easy as clicking File>Print>Save as PDF, if you’re using a Mac, or taking a screenshot. Skitch is a free app for Macs, Windows and mobile devices that allows you to annotate screenshots, maps and pictures. Do a web search for screenshot apps and plug-ins that create full-page records, and try a few out to find one that suits your needs. (Worried about copyright infringement? Read about fair dealing in the Copyright Act. In Canada, research, private study, criticism and news reporting are exceptions to copyright infringement.)
Mimi Szeto (@mimiszeto) is a freelance researcher and editor from Toronto who holds a Master of Information Studies degree in Library and Information Science. Formerly an online listings editor at St. Joseph Media for torontolife.com and where.ca, she has coordinated fact-checking projects for torontolife.com and worked in various public, academic and non-traditional libraries in the city.
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