2. Identifying Sources

To begin your research you need to identify books and articles that address the subject you are researching. You may already own, or be aware of, some sources that can serve as starting points in your research. As you seek to expand the number and quality of sources that you can access for your research, the following strategies may be helpful.

Library Catalog

At your local public library, or if you have access to an academic library (see below, “Local Academic Libraries”), you can use the library’s catalog to find books and articles on a given subject. Most libraries offer online access to their catalogs. Skimming through the titles of books and articles within a particular subject heading will give you an idea of what sources might be available, as well as which authors may have written extensively on a particular subject.

WorldCat is an excellent online resource for locating books in libraries near you. At their website, www.worldcat.org, you can enter your search terms (such as title, author, or subject) and it will return a list of resources, and will tell you which libraries near you have that particular resource. Worldcat will also give you correct bibliographic information for the books. In the upper right-hand corner of a book page, click on “Cite/Export.” That can help you give proper data in the Works Cited section of your papers.

If your local library does not have many sources on the subject you are researching, you can access the online catalogs of other, larger libraries and use their collections as a starting point for finding sources of information. Most universities offer an online catalog of their collection. Using their online catalog, you could identify sources that you would like to use, and then find those sources using one of the methods described below in “Section 2: Locating and Accessing Sources.”

Once you obtain a particular book or article, you can then use that book’s bibliography and citations to lead you to more information on the subject.

Online Booksellers

Online booksellers such as www.amazon.com and www.bn.com can be useful for doing research and identifying resources that relate to your topic. Online bookstores can be searched based on subject, title, and author (just like library catalogs) and they also generate “suggestions” based on your search.

For example: If I search for “Communion” on Amazon, it responds with thousands of products. I can narrow that search by clicking on “Books” in the left-hand column. I can narrow it further by selecting “Religion & Spirituality” then selecting “Christian Books & Bibles” and then selecting “Sacraments.” I have now narrowed my search to the word “Communion” within the section on Christian Sacraments. When I click on a title in the list of books, I can scroll down the page describing that book and see other recommendations that Amazon has generated based on my interest in this subject.

Search Engines

Search engines such as Google, Bing, Yahoo and DuckDuckGo can also serve as starting points for finding information. As you go through the search results, you may find references to books and articles that you can then locate and use as sources. Google will often return the Wikipedia article on a given subject as the first search result (for example, try searching “Constantine the Great” on Google), so be sure to read the section below on Wikipedia before you use a Wikipedia article in your research.

Theological Journals Search

This search engine is custom designed and hosted on Google to allow searches that return results only from journals and magazines that address theological and religious subjects. Depending on the access provided by the particular journal that published the article, you may or may not be able to access the article referenced in the search results. Even if you cannot access the article, this search engine can help you discover the article’s existence, and you can then use one of the techniques described below in the section on “Locating and Accessing Sources” to obtain access to the article.


The website http://en.wikipedia.org can be a good starting place for locating primary and secondary source material on a subject. It is a free, online encyclopedia that is written and edited by people who use it. Because Wikipedia is free and is not the work of a large publishing house (as, for example, Encyclopaedia Britannica is), it is often regarded as untrustworthy. In fact, Wikipedia is produced by very dedicated amateurs who follow a rigorous system of rules and peer review. As a result, it is more accurate and helpful than many people think.

However, Wikipedia information should never be taken as factual without checking it, and Wikipedia should never be cited as a source in a research paper. Wikipedia’s facts need to be checked. Anyone in the world can edit the article, and sometimes such people are simply trying to promote a particular point of view on a controversial subject.

Wikipedia should never be cited as a source because tertiary sources (such as encyclopedias) are not adequate for academic research. Academic research must use primary and secondary sources. Therefore, even reputable encyclopedias should serve only as a starting point for research and should never be cited as sources in your research.

What, then, would be the use of Wikipedia? An article on Wikipedia can serve as a general introduction to a subject. Most Wikipedia articles are generally accurate and can thus point you to key issues, main ideas, important persons, and recognized authorities on a given subject. You can then take this basic, introductory information and use it to start locating useful primary and secondary sources of information on the subject. You should then use these primary and secondary sources to check the facts in the Wikipedia article.

The best features of a Wikipedia article are the “References,” “Notes,” “Citations,” and “External Links” found at the end of each article. Here you will find bibliographic information on primary and secondary sources related to the topic of the article. For example, the Wikipedia article on Constantine the Great cites scores of other sources that you could use to do research on him (scroll to the bottom of the page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_the_Great to see the sources the article could point you towards.)

The Internet Archive Library

The copyright has expired on books published before 1923, and many of these have been scanned and are available for free in pdf form. If you are dealing with an older book, go to https://archive.org/advancedsearch.php to see if they have it. The Open Access Digital Theological Library is a good portal for theological research. 

Princeton Seminary Digital Library

The Princeton Seminary Library has access to full articles from their journals that are greater than five years old. Go to the digital library site and start searching the subjects you are interested in: http://diglib.ptsem.edu/.

Review of Biblical Literature

The Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) provides online access to book reviews at its Review of Biblical Literature website (http://www.bookreviews.org). In an academic setting, a book review is more than just a critique of whether the book is well written. These reviews are designed to give the reader a good idea of the content of the book including the issues addressed, the analytical approaches taken, and the conclusions reached by the author. This could be very helpful if you are aware of a book that you think might be helpful in your research but you do not know for sure. By reading a review on this site, you could determine whether the book is worth pursuing with one of the techniques described below in the section on locating and accessing sources (such as whether you should try to request it from your local library through interlibrary loan).

Directory of Open Access Journals

Many journals and magazines require that you be a subscriber in order to access their online content. The Directory of Open Access Journals (www.doaj.org) is a list of journals that allow open access to their content. The Directory lists many journals in the subject area of Religion. If you are looking for an article on a specific subject, you may be able to find it in one of these journals.

Religious and Theological Abstracts

Religious and Theological Abstracts (http://www.rtabst.org) is a website that provides a searchable database of summaries of articles from journals of religious and theological study. It costs $45 per year for an individual to have complete access to the site, but this fee could be worth it. For any subject you search, it will return results of hundreds of articles from many different journals. Each search result includes a one-paragraph summary of what the article is about.

Using this highly specific search engine, you could locate articles that are exactly on point for the topic you are researching, and then use one of the techniques described below in “Locating and Accessing Sources” (such as visiting a nearby academic library) to locate and access the article.

RTABST allows you to do five trial searches for free, so you can see whether you think it will be useful before you buy a subscription.

Religion Online

Religion Online (http://www.religion-online.org) has a wide range of reprinted articles grouped by subject. If your topic is included in one of their subject areas, you may be able to locate articles, complete with the necessary bibliographic information, that address your topic.

Online Bible Commentaries

If you are doing research on a topic in the Bible or in biblical theology, you may find online commentaries useful. Several Bible research and Christian sites have commentaries available online. However, you should be careful to use modern commentaries that incorporate newer research.

For example, the website www.biblegateway.com includes access to some of Matthew Henry’s commentary and the IVP New Testament Commentaries on their commentaries page: http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/ The Matthew Henry commentaries are too old to be used in research, but the IVP commentary could be useful and is accessible through the Bible Gateway site.

Mark Goodacre’s website http://www.ntgateway.com/ is a useful starting point for academic research in the New Testament.

Google Books

One of the interesting features that Google offers is “Google Books.” You can locate this feature by going to books.google.com. It enables you to search online previews of some books that Google makes available through its search engine.

Here’s an example of how this might be useful in research: Suppose I remember that somewhere in his writings C.S. Lewis told a story about a girl he knew who was raised to think of God as a perfect substance and as a result she ended up thinking of him as a “vast tapioca pudding.” I would like to refresh my memory about this story, quote it accurately, and be able to include a reference to it in my paper with complete bibliographic information. In the days before Google, this would require determining in which book Lewis told this story and finding a copy of the book so that I can obtain the page number where the quote is found, the publisher, the copyright date, etc.

If I go to Google Books, however, and search for the phrase “vast tapioca pudding” (with quote marks), the second search result that comes up is labeled by Google as “Miracles – Page 117.” (Try doing the search yourself if you are having trouble visualizing this.) When I click on that search result, Google shows me an image of page 117 of Miracles by C.S. Lewis, and there is the exact story I want to reference.

Google is giving me a preview of the book. The entire book is not available, but the quote that I need is there. To obtain the bibliographic information, I simply click on the image of the book’s front cover (Google places that image at the top left of the page.) From the image of the book’s front cover, I can scroll forward a page or two and find the page with the copyright information. In this case it is the Harper-Collins 2001 edition, page 117.

Using Google in this way would not allow me to read an entire book because in most cases, Google only offers a preview of the book, not the entire text. It does, however, allow me to find the quote I need, and the bibliographic information to use that quote, without having to obtain a copy of the book.