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The Research Process : A Guide: Strategy


Comprehensive research using scholarly resources is essential when writing a research paper. The following key resources will be helpful in determining a research strategy for any topic.

Determine a topic.  If your topic is too broad, you may find too many sources.  If it is too narrow, you may find very little information. If at all possible, try to discuss your topic with your GSI or professor prior to beginning the research process.  When you have evaluated several of the basic sources recommended, it is always a good idea to REFINE YOUR TOPIC mid-way through the research process, by clarifying the scope or depth of the subject you are doing research on. See the section below for more information on refining your topic.

Standardize note-taking.  Most students who are doing research for a paper consult various sources and often, half-way through the research process, forget which sources they've used, or have forgotten to take down important information such as dates, pages, and are never able to locate the source again.  To save time, keep consistent notes about sources in one place.  Consider using bibliographic software such as Endnote or Zotero. 

Examine standard historical texts.  General art historical texts can provide good overviews that cover many periods and artists.  Bibliographies are usually included at the end of each chapter.  Footnotes citing additional publications can also be useful.

Consult an encyclopedia.  A general  (Encyclopedia Britannica) or subject-specific (Grove Art Online) encyclopedia can provide an excellent overview of a topic, and often provide historical context.  Encyclopedia articles are authored by scholars in the field, and often contain excellent bibliographies which can lead to additional sources.


Refining Your Topic

How to Narrow a Topic

How do you know if your topic is too broad and needs to be narrowed?

  • You are finding too much information on the topic – more sources exist than you can reasonably go through.
  • You feel you are attempting to cover more information than you have room for in your paper.

Example: I would like to research Surrealist art.

This is a very broad subject which needs to be narrowed. When considering the categories below, we can narrow our topic to a specific Surrealist artist and one aspect of their work: 'Science in the Art of Remedios Varo'.

General topic: Surrealist art
Time span: 1940s-1950s
Geographic location: Latin America or Mexico
Group or person: exiled artists in Mexico or artist Remedios Varo
Aspect or sub-category: Science in the art of Remedios Varo


How to Broaden a Topic

How do you know if your topic is too narrow and needs to be broadened?

  • You are finding very little information on the topic – you can't find many sources.
  • Your topic is too new and not much research has been published on the topic yet.

Example: I want to research Thomas Campbell, a contemporary Bay Area artist.

This artist may not yet have a lot of sources published about his work or life. You may need to broaden your research to include the context within which he has worked, such as the Bay Area art in the 1990s+ and the Mission School artists group, and then focus on a aspect or event from this broader context.

Specific topic: artist Thomas Campbell
Related groups, individuals or movements: Misson School artists group
Context of geographic location: Bay Area artists
Context of time or era: 1990s-2000




Source Types

Dictionaries (general or subject-specific) can be useful for tracking down unknown or obscure words and terms, and for related terms. Examples include: A Concise Dictionary of the Avant-gardesThe Edinburgh Dictionary of ModernismDictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art.

Catalogues Raisonné  present the complete works of an artist, often accompanied by a comprehensive bibliography. Search of these in UC Library Search and include 'catalogue raisonne' as a keyword.

Books Search by author, title, keyword, or subject in UC Library Search.

Art-related periodical indexes lead to both popular and scholarly articles in the journal literature. List of Indexes. 

Reference Sources are sources such as handbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias. Examples include: the Routledge Encyclopedia of ModernismBloomsbury International Encyclopedia of SurrealismOxford Art Online. See our guide page on reference works for more information.

Book Reviews written by authorities in the field can help evaluate scholarship. Book reviews are often found in professional journals or a publication such as BookForum. You can also search in UC Library Search and include the keyword 'book review'.

Dissertations can be found in UC Library Search or Dissertations & Theses. 

Exhibition catalogs contain scholarly essays and high quality images. Search in UC Library Search and include 'exhibition catalog' as a keyword.

Newspaper Articles can be useful when searching for current artists and exhibition reviews. Search in News Databases.

Primary Sources represent first-hand accounts, such as oral histories, personal interviews, an artist's archives, etc.  The Bancroft Library, and the Berkeley Art Museum are excellent sources for finding original source material.  Also see Calisphere for digitized collections from libraries and archives around California. See the Digital Public Library of America for digital collections from archives and libraries around the U.S. Also search WorldCat and limit to Archival Materials. You may also use an archive directory such as Archive Finder or ArchiveGrid to find archives with relevant holdings.

Videos/Film can provide documentaries on artists or works by artists and can be viewed in the Media Resources Center, Moffitt Library or viewed online via one of our online streaming collections such as Kanopy or Art and Architecture in Video. You may also search UC Library Search and limit 'material type' to 'video/film'. Also see our guide on art film & video.



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