Using Sources to Get to Other Sources

There are two kinds of new directions that sources can offer you. Both of these may seem like setbacks at first, but they’ll ultimately make your work stronger.

New places to go

Even when you have a good sense of what you want to say, you’ll still need to look for new sources to help you strengthen and support your argument. Sometimes your research will lead you to new evidence that helps you prove your claims more fully.

Refining your research question

One of the best parts of research is finding new material that you didn’t know you were looking for. After all, if you know the answers before you start researching, there’s a good chance that the paper you write won’t be very interesting. As you read more about your topic, you’ll get a better sense of what other authors have already written about it, which will help you develop your own research questions. Based on this, you might focus in on a more specific research question than you had before, or you might develop a completely new research question.


The best place to find new directions is in the citations of a text you’ve already found useful. You always want to look through the footnotes, endnotes, or acknowledgements of a text to find clues about where to look next.  Footnotes or endnotes not only give you the sources for various claims; frequently, they point to directions for further research, things an author discovered but didn’t have the time or interest to explore in detail or sources they consulted but didn’t use. An endnote might say something like, “For more on gender in Super Mario Brothers, see the following,” then list several sources. Also, authors often thank people in their field for inspiring them or helping them in their work.  You can get a sense of who an expert’s colleagues are, then search those scholars’ work as well.

Time Saving Pro-Tip: ASK FOR HELP

Since your instructor wrote the assignment, chances are that she will have a couple of good suggestions about where to start looking for good sources.

One of the best ways to find new sources is to talk to a librarian. University libraries, and some large public libraries, usually have librarians known as “subject specialists.” These librarians are experts in a particular field or group of fields (Biological Sciences, Business, American History and Literature), and they work closely with professors and students doing innovative research in those fields. Most libraries also have a reference desk staffed with librarians who can help direct you towards useful material or help you to better clarify the search terms you are using.

In all cases, it’s important to do a little background work before you ask for help. If you think you have an idea of what your topic is, do a little general research with tertiary sources before you ask for help. For instance, if you’re interested in the Spanish-American War, it would be good to know that the war was fought in 1898 by US and Spanish armies over territories in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam. Both your instructor and librarian can help you better if you have a basic grasp of the topic you’re trying to research.