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Research for General Nonfiction Writers: Collecting Sources

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If you’ve been reading my research series posts in order, you have already done a fair amount of exploratory work on your topic. You’ve identified keywords and phrases. You also have a list of potential questions about the topic to answer.

You’ll continue to refine these keywords and questions as you collect research.

But now it’s time to start collecting sources.  Having a system for searching and sticking to it will help you find most of what you need.

I’ve outlined a basic system below. After you read and understand it, feel free to tweak things to suit yourself.

You will need to: 

  1. Identify your search strategies.
  2. Apply those strategies in specific places.
  3. Collect sources from the sources you locate.

Step One: Identify search strategies

The “search strategies” I am referring to are also called queries, which we covered in detail in the last post.

A query, search string, or search strategy is simply a collection of words you put together in a particular order so search algorithms can give you what you need. They are used online with search engines like Google or on databases like EBSCO Masterfile. These queries or search strings can also help search print sources like books and printed journals.

Sort through your keywords

If you followed the last post, you should have a page or so in your notebook of keywords to use and keywords to omit.  Now you can combine them in different configurations for your searches.

Here is a query example from my last post:

 [“edible mushrooms” AND “northeastern United States”]. Remember, the brackets ([,]) are used to denote the search. You do not type these into search boxes.

Look at the keyword notes to the right.  This set of keywords is for a book that will examine the latest research covering exercise on women over 50. Many combinations are possible. Here are a few examples:

  •  [“strength moves” AND “women over 50”]
  •  [“strength training” AND “women over 50”]
  •  [strength AND “women over 50”]
  • I could also drop the “over 50” or change it to “over 55.” [“strength training” AND women]

The possibilities for search strings from this small example list are lengthy. To begin, just take a word or phrase from column 1 and combine it with a word or phrase from column one with OR in-between. This will tell the search engine to bring up any source with either of the phrases. For more information on advanced searches, read here or the articles below.


Don’t let the options overwhelm you. Most likely, you won’t need to use everything you’ve written down. For example, if you are not finding “reducing diets” coming up enough to clog your results, don’t include it in any queries.

Prioritize the queries

Once you have several search strings, you can re-evaluate and refine as you go along. Choose 3-5 that seem really promising and use those to start with.

You may not need to use any “AND NOT” searches. An example of one of these would be:

 [“Muscle strength” AND “women over 50” AND NOT “exercise equipment”].

Using this string, you should get articles on muscle strength and older women, but not those that focus on exercise equipment.

To find scholarly (peer-reviewed) articles on a search engine, you could either do an advanced search and limit the articles to those from universities by adding .edu. To do this, type a query that ends like this one:

 [“weight-bearing exercise” AND “women over 50” site:.edu].

For more information on advanced searches read an article on Google advanced searches or  Bing advanced searches. You can query for advanced search tips for any search engine.

If you’re using a database and want peer-reviewed articles limit results to those from academic journals. For directions, see Research for General Nonfiction Writers: Keywords and Questions.”

Step 2: Apply the strategies

Now that you are armed with 3-5 search strings, it’s time to go to where the sources are. Apply each query (search string) you have isolated to every search engine, database, and library resource you come across and see what turns up.

Search engines

Start with search engines if you like. Take note of anything that looks promising. You can use OneNote, Evernote, Google Keep, or any other note-taking app to keep track of what you find. Save the links to information that looks promising. You may not wind up using everything, but at least you won’t waste time trying to locate something again later.


Try to get on every suitable database that you can find to type in your search strings. If you have trouble doing this on your own, go to a library for assistance.

Apply every search string you created using the tips from the last post and the search strategies above. Save these links to your notes app. Use doi addresses instead of database links if possible because doi links won’t change.  


While you may wonder if it’s worth the time and effort to get to a library, this step can’t be omitted. Librarians have been trained to use search engines, databases, and print sources. Libraries absolutely have sources you can’t get to for free.

Once you get to a library, explore a little to get a sense of how things are arranged. Try to find some things on your own. But if you get stuck, don’t hesitate to ask for assistance. Helping people find information is a librarian’s area of expertise.

Three types of libraries to explore:

1.  Public

Public libraries can be found in most towns and cities in the United States. While their budgets have suffered in recent decades, most do an admirable job of keeping their collections current.

Be aware, though, that they are not all the same.  Research may not be a public library’s primary function. Some small libraries are independent and have very limited budgets. Their reference materials may be extremely slim. Some don’t have a  trained MLS librarian on staff to help with research. Some libraries view their mission to provide only bestsellers to their patrons.

Go there anyway. You never know what you may find.

Your public libraries may be part of a system. Usually, these systems have one home library that is larger than the rest. If you have one of these home libraries nearby, pay it a visit.

Ask to be shown available databases and show the reference section. Staff members can give you instructions on using the catalog to find regular books if you need them. These librarians can also help if you get stuck while using a source.

Large cities often have excellent, well-stocked libraries. To save time, check their websites before you go. Some (like the New York Public Library) offer services to anyone who lives within their state. Some will let you use their materials for a modest fee.

2.    Academic

Academic libraries are located in community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Not all of them are open to the general public. Check the websites and, if necessary, call ahead.

If you are doing any sort of scholarly work or need to use scholarly works, you will need to have access to these libraries. These library collections will provide access to materials you will find nowhere else.

3.    Special

Some libraries exist outside the two categories above. They serve special populations and their collections may have information that can be found nowhere else. These libraries may exist in hospitals, museums, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and governments. The Library of Congress is an example of one such library. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC is another.

Check these libraries out online. Call to make appointments to research in person. It may also be possible for them to allow temporary access to online collections. You can learn a lot from simply talking with the librarians.

Some of these libraries are not accessible to the public, but they might be open to a phone or email interview with a librarian who can redirect you to other available sources.

Bonus: Use social media to find out from people you know

Finally, using social media, it’s possible to ask groups of people or all your contacts well-formulated questions. In this way, you may be lead to sources that would escape you otherwise. For example, ask a subreddit for bird watchers for the best book titles on sub-Saharan African species. 

Step 3: Collecting sources from sources

Once you have found some promising sources, examine each for more sources to explore. Some can be found listed in the back of the book and others may be experts mentioned in the text.

Bibliographies and Further Reading

Lists of more potential sources at the end of a book’s text are called various names such as “Bibliography” or “Further Reading.” These lists contain other books or articles from magazines or anthologies on the topic. Sometimes they are lists of works used by the author to research the work you hold in your hands.

Pore over these and write down promising citations exactly as it is given. If you’re in a hurry, either take the source to a copy machine to copy these lists or take a picture of them with your phone camera.

Candidates for interviews

Write down the names of any experts mentioned and the source in which you found them. You will need to note their employer, if available, and their credentials. If the person has a middle initial, write it down. While it’s likely the person you wish to contact has changed their employment and address since the source was published, you sometimes need every scrap of information you can get to track them down.

Two categories of people you may wish to contact:

1.   Experts

Experts are people you come across who are recognized authorities in their fields. They may not be professors or researchers (although they can be) but they possess specialized knowledge the average person doesn’t.

An expert could range from a Nobel-prize winning cellular biology professor at Harvard to a regional spoon player who is widely recognized as a pioneer in modern bluegrass music spoon-playing techniques. Keep in mind these people are busy, in your initial email, recognize this fact and offer to let them determine the parameters of the interview. They may want to limit it to a 5-minute phone conversation, request a total of 3 questions in writing, or recommend someone else. 

2.   Witnesses

Witnesses are anyone who may corroborate a story you come across. If the story you heard is recent, you will want to communicate about the facts, as you understand them, with as many witnesses as possible.

If the witness is deceased, find out if there an archive of material written by the person about the event to which you may gain access.

Keep written records

This cannot be stated enough. You MUST keep meticulous notes while collecting sources.

Written Sources: once again, you must record citation information exactly as you find it.

Experts and witnesses:  get email addresses, phone numbers, any contact information to help you get in touch with them later.

Tracking down sources

Once you have lists of sources, you must, of course, gain access to them.You can’t refer to a source if you’ve only read about it in another source. You can allude to it and confess you could not track it down, but that’s not confidence-inspiring for your reader. If you can’t find it, it’s usually better to leave it out.

Where to find the sources:

  • Libraries

You may need to make a trip to a library, or several, to find a source. World Cat is a good place to start. Some libraries will get books for you through interlibrary loan, but you may need to pay the shipping fees.

Library employees are typically super-helpful. But if a library employee tells you a source cannot be gotten, ask them politely to let you speak with a reference librarian or a supervisor. Go all the way to the director if necessary. Once they understand you are a serious researcher, they are likely to find ways to help you. Keep in mind that not all people who work in libraries are trained librarians. Also, keep in mind that people who work in libraries are busy. You may need to make an appointment if you need in-depth help.

  • Online bookstores

One nice thing about the internet is that it makes finding used books easy. The book you want may be available for a modest price.

  •    Databases

While full-length books are not likely available through a database, full-length articles are.

  • Books no longer under copyright

Project Gutenberg is one place online where the entire contents of books no longer under copyright are available in their entirety.

What to do with the sources when you get them

Once you have a source, unless you own it, make a copy. You will need to have it in print if possible, but on an external drive if not. Unless it is book-length, you will want to record the source in its entirety. The two tips below can save you time and money. 

1. Skim it

Before copying a source, at least skim it. Read over it quickly and decide: is it useful or not? If not, mark it off your list.

2. Copy what you need

If you find the book in the library and do not wish to purchase it, copy or photograph only what you need. Be sure you get the front and back of the title page, any bibliographies, and whatever chapters you require.

Book and Online Sources to help

I’m familiar with the two books listed below and have found them helpful in my own work.

The online sources shared below are free, reputable reference sources. Always use only sites you trust online. Many sites are created using shoddy research from other sites that took their information from unreliable sources. Always double-check a site’s reputation. 



Only you can determine when you have collected enough sources. Keep going until you are satisfied you have all the information you need.


The next post will be on note-taking. While taking notes you will likely continue collecting sources. In fact, that’s the best way to proceed.

If you have questions about researching or would like to inquire about my editing services, please fill out the contact form below.

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