Tips on using the library for research or learning about new topics


Here are some techniques I often use for learning about technical topics that are new to me. I hope you find them as effective as I do.

Tip #1: Start with textbooks: If the subject is mature enough that there are textbooks written about it, I always start there, because textbooks are generally better written, contain more background and perspective, and are generally easier to learn from than articles in the research journals.

Tip #2: Go to the shelves: Search the U of I Library computer database under Subject or Title keywords (example: "digital communication"). A long list of books should appear, if it is a "mature" subject. Skim through the list, looking for relevant titles (let's say I'm interested in CDMA techniques), and simply jot down the call numbers of 10-20 books that look relevant. Look at the list of call numbers, and determine which ones seem to be the primary numbers for indexing books on the topic of interest. Then go to the stacks and look through the books directly.

Tip #3: Find the right book(s) for you: Of the perhaps hundreds of books on the shelf, only some will be right for you. Scan the shelves, pull down lots of books and skim through them, looking for ones that (i) contain the information you need, (ii) have the right level of background, depth, detail, etc. for your needs, (iii) assume a background knowledge compatible with yours, and (iv) have a writing style compatible with you. Thirty minutes or an hour spent selecting the right material to learn from can save you hours or days of struggling through material that's poorly written, largely irrelevant or overly detailed for your needs, or written for someone with different background knowledge.

Tip #4: Start general, then get specific: If I'm completely new to the topic, I often look for a more general or basic book that has only a single chapter on the topic I'm interested in. (For our CDMA example, I might first look for a good textbook on "Analog and Digital Communication" that has only one chapter on CDMA techniques.) From this one chapter, I can quickly get a basic understanding of the key ideas in the field. This makes me much better prepared to turn to a more specialized book from which I can now much more quickly extract the detailed information I need (for example, a book just on "Digital Communications" or "CDMA"). After learning all you can or need to from a textbook, you're much better prepared to read research books, monographs, or journal articles that typically assume a basic understanding and that are often less well written than a good textbook.

Tip #5: Ask the experts: At the University of Illinois, you are blessed with one of the largest and most knowledgeable body of scholars on Earth, including not only the faculty but also staff, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Ask around, find out who the experts are on the topic of interest, and go talk to them. Most scholars greatly enjoy sharing their knowledge with others who have a genuine interest, so take advantage of this! However, keep in mind that you need a basic understanding of the area to frame the right questions and to understand the answers you get, so experts are not a substitute for written resources. Use them like the more specialized material mentioned in Tip #4; prepare yourself first to take advantage of their expertise. But, don't be too shy about approaching them, either!

Created by Douglas L. Jones, September 12, 2000; Last updated Septmber 12, 2000