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Library DIY: Narrowing a Topic

Narrowing a Topic

When your topic is too broad, it can be difficult to research and even more difficult to write about! Therefore, be sure you have a focused topic. Here are some tips to help you narrow your topic so that it's manageable and focused.

The 5 W's and 1 H

Take your larger topic, and consider the 5 W's and 1 H. There are no right or wrong answers for this exercise! So just consider what interests you and what fulfills your assignment. For example: Obesity

  • Who (teenagers)
  • What (increase in teenage obesity)
  • Where (Colorado)
  • When (2010-current)
  • Why (are more teens obese?)
  • How (physical education mandatory in high school)

Identify keywords and/or Subject Headings that describe the topic

Keywords and phrases are less exact than subject headings. There are many different words that could possibly be used to describe a concept or topic. 

Example: Children, kids, youngsters, juveniles, adolescents, teenagers, boys and girls, and youth are words that could all be used to find items about young people. 

Subject Headings are “official” headings, provided by the Library of Congress, used to describe a concept. SWAN (Spiva Library online catalog) entries have linkable subject headings listed for easier location of materials on your topic. SWAN can be searched by Library of Congress Subject Headings as well as Title, Author, Keyword. In addition, located on bookstands at the end of the Reference stacks are print volumes of the Library of Congress Subject Headings. 

Example: The subject heading “Cats” refers only to domestic cats, whereas the subject heading “Felidae” will refer to items about panthers, lunx, and cheetahs. The subject headings “Mars (planet)” and “Mars (Roman deity)” refer to two very different subjects. 

a. Refer to a course textbook. A broad overview of a subject is often valuable in clarifying ideas and research questions. 

b. Reference Resources. A specialized encyclopedia, dictionary, or handbook is often a good place to start researching a topic. These background sources can provide an overview of a topic and references to books or articles on the subject.

To locate a background source for your topic look in SWAN by doing a subject search for “encyclopedias” or “dictionaries” or ask for assistance at the Reference desk. Examples include Encyclopedia of the Cold War and Macmillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery.

c. Utilize bibliographies. Note any useful sources such as books, journals, newspaper articles, etc., that are listed in the bibliography at the end of encyclopedia articles, dictionary entries, textbook chapters, and relevant articles. The sources cited in the bibliography may provide good leads for further research.

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