Article Research: A Savvy Librarian’s Top Tips

Article Research Tips from a Savvy Librarian. Makealivingwriting.com

Ever wasted hours doing article research for a query or assignment?

It happens, especially if you don’t know where to look.

If you’re not getting anywhere with your approach to article research (which probably starts with Google for almost everybody), ask an expert on how to find the information you need.

And just where are you going to find an expert on article research? At the library.

Libraries (all 119,487 of them in the United States, which means there’s probably a library near you) are packed with resources to help freelancers work smarter and faster.

And at every one, you’ll find a reference librarian who knows the ins and outs of article research better than you.

In a recent Freelance Writers Den podcast, we talked with Emily-Jane Dawson. She’s a reference librarian for the Multnomah County Library system in Portland, Ore. And she shared some of her best article research tips for freelancers.

Looking for information to beef up a query letter, pitch a prospect, or complete an assignment?

Check out these article research tips from a savvy reference librarian:

How can you help someone with article research for a writing assignment?

A: If you’re researching an article, you might not be all the way through your thought process about what you are working on. For example, someone might be interested in Oregon history.

That’s a big topic. I’ll say, “Can you tell me more?” or “What’s your angle?” That gives them a chance to articulate their focus. They might say, “I’m interested in these four things.” And I’ll say, “There’s not a lot written about the first topic. For the last three topics, there are lots of resources, and we can get you started with those.”

It’s up to the researcher to decide where they want to go, but the librarian can illuminate how challenging it’s going to be.

What resources do libraries offer to help freelancers research potential clients?

A: Most libraries have directory databases, which are great for journalists and anyone researching businesses. The ones that have information for companies are particularly powerful. You can search for a company by:

  • Type
  • Number of employees
  • Names of executives
  • And all kinds of other more complicated categories

One caveat about that, though. Privately held companies don’t have to tell anybody how much money they make or how many employees they have. So databases often use an algorithm to make estimates. Publicly traded companies and nonprofits do have to tell everybody about that, so it’s more reliable for them.

Besides business directories, what other types of databases are available?

A: Another type includes databases that gather articles from periodicals. Some are on a particular topic like health or business. Sometimes they’ll have the text of the entire article. Other times they’ll just have citations with the title and author. That can be frustrating.

If it happens to you, go to your library and say, “I found this citation, what do I do?” They may have the journal in paper form, or they can advise you how to find it.

There are also databases that are encyclopedias of information on a single topic. Some of those are really specialized.

How can people access a library’s databases?

A: Usually they’re only available to people who have membership in the library. But if you’re visiting a library in person, you can totally use it, because you’re there in the building.

That means you often can go to the library that has the resources, even if it’s not one you would normally visit. Colleges and universities might have more specialized databases than your public library. Not every university library is open to the public, but many are.

If you do belong to a library, you can access many databases through its website. And that’s the tricky part. They might be in different places on the site, and there might be several with similar names.

I would never discourage anyone from jumping in and playing around, but if you’re looking for something specific, talk to the staff at your library. They can help you figure out which is the right resource.

Can librarians help locate government information, even if the information isn’t in your catalog?

A: Absolutely, we can. Governments are giant, scary, complicated bureaucracies. You can’t necessarily tell which agency is concerned with an issue. There might be more than one.

Figuring that out is one thing that we can do. Sometimes I can help you, and other times I might refer you to somebody who knows more.

Sometimes the data is available but hasn’t been published—this happens a lot with statistics. Then I’ll help you track down the agency that has the information.

What’s available for writers who live in an area with a tiny library?

A: A lot of rural libraries in the United States are part of a larger system. In some places, there will be a shared catalog. Quite a number of states have a virtual reference service, which allows anyone to ask a librarian questions.

Even small libraries have staff who are excellent at answering questions, providing research advice and connecting you with other organizations that might be able to help you. 

What’s the most important takeaway for writers about how librarians can be our partners?

A: Librarians want to help people, and we believe in sharing. We care about people’s projects and their research, we value curiosity, and we support intellectual work.

If you have a question, we’re excited about that. We want to help you with it, and we think it’s interesting. If you come back and tell us you got this article published, or you got great feedback about it, we’re glad to hear about that. If you want to, in a professional sense, make friends with us, that’s going to feel good on our end, too.

Anything else freelancers should know about using the library for article research?

A: If you don’t have a library card, get one. It’s one of the best investments you can make in your freelance career. And it costs nothing.

What are your best article research tips? Let’s discuss on Facebook.

Maria Veres is a freelance writer based in Oklahoma City. When she’s not working in her home office, you’ll often find her hanging out at her friendly local library.

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