Tools of the Trade: A Library Starter Kit for Harvard Freshmen


Welcome, freshmen!

Ms. Richardson 5, fol. 66v Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, England, ca. 1420. Featured in the online exhibition, “Books in Books: Reflections on Reading and Writing in
the Middle Ages.
” Available through the HOLLIS Catalog.

The Harvard Guide to Using Sources offers you advice on how to expand your understanding of the raw materials of research and invites you to consider the many roles that sources play in academic work. Expos gives you some initial practice at putting sources together in imaginative combinations and persuasive arrangements and ideally, in elegantly crafted prose. What do the Harvard Libraries contribute to the process?  World-class collections of potential source materials, of course, but also the machinery for identifying them: a catalog and a suite of e-resources that serve as dependable and authoritative source discovery tools. In the following pages, we’ll highlight those that should have maximum versatility and usefulness at this early point in your Harvard career.

As you undertake these first projects, remember that good researchers are made, not born. Through trial and error, given sufficient opportunities to practice, and with a bit of coaching, you acquire these skill sets, work habits, and intellectual behaviors.  But you’ll do so only over time.  One research experience, one library session, one year at Harvard won’t teach you everything you need to know to move effortlessly in the library’s research environment, and even after four years here, you may end up using just a fraction of the collections that have taken us nearly four centuries to build.

Orvieto: Cathedral, San Brizio Chapel: Dante. From From the Scala Archives, New York. Available through ArtSTOR.

Harvard’s libraries are places that inspire wonder and allow for infinite imagining, but they also confront you with a paradox: choice  -- for as much as we value it -- can sometimes be confounding.  New Harvard students must learn to navigate layers of library complexity: multiple buildings, multiple websites, information that can come to you through multiple routes and in multiple format types. Even our online catalog is currently available in two versions.

We offer you this library starter kit, stocked with a few essentials, to help you meet the new and different expectations for college-level research. It comes complete with a set of basic “operating instructions,” mostly in the form of advice, explanations, and suggested search strategies.

Once you’ve read through these pages and tried out some of the tools we’ve pointed you to, give us your feedback. Let us know what to keep, what you wish we’d covered, what needs to be added (or subtracted) in the next version of our research starter kit. Good luck with your work!

Susan Gilroy, Librarian for Undergraduate Programs for Writing, Widener and Lamont Libraries, Harvard College Library

10 tip for doing research well at Harvard

Accept the fact that you  may need to be peripatetic.

Widener Library.

Your unlimited access to the Harvard Libraries comes with a very small price: our materials are spread around. And they’re spread further than just Lamont and Widener. Occasionally, your research may require you to cross the river to the Baker Business Library (for example) or head north toward the Law Library to check out materials there. Occasionally, you’ll need to wait 24 hours for an item in the Harvard Depository to arrive. We know how easy it is make your research decisions based on your proximity to their locations, but try to let the potential value of a source determine what you use instead.
Be comfortable moving  between the world of print and the world of bits.

Diagram of an Application-Specific Integrated Circuit. From the Museum of Modern Art, Architecture and Design Collection. Available through ArtSTOR.

Despite what you hear in the media, not all valuable information is online for the taking and that situation isn’t likely to change while you’re a student here. At one time or another, we’ve all had to struggle against the temptation to use only what’s available in full-text from a computer screen. As much as you can, resist making choices among sources based solely on the convenience of their format.
Understand research as a  problem-solving process.

The Farnsworth Room in Widener Library. Pencil drawing. c. 1916.

Like writing and reading, good research is a thinking-intensive activity. Even though much of it might happen at a computer screen, it’s never, really, about being able to point and click. It’s all about brainwork: asking questions, reaching decision points, taking stock of what you find and moving on from there. Research might seem time-consuming at moments and frustrating once in a while, and you’re bound to hit some dead-ends. But it can and should also lead you to some deeply satisfying intellectual discovery. At its best, research can be a really pleasurable experience -- a kind of mental play.
Try to imagine what “ideal”  sources might let you do.

Agassiz Study. Radcliffe Archives.

Source discovery can happen in fits and starts during the course of a research project. That’s often because the kinds of information that are most helpful in the very early stages are different from those you might turn to once your ideas have taken shape in an outline or started to solidify in written form. When a shift in direction suddenly requires more research than you thought, or when your efforts at source discovery get snagged, try to verbalize what the “perfect source” might be: what sorts of information you’d want it to include, how you would use it, why it would help you push your research forward. Describe it to your course instructor or librarians and they may know exactly what you’re after. And even if your perfect source hasn’t (yet) been created, they can probably recommend something for you that’s reasonably close.
Ask yourself: who cares?

Scholars at a Lecture. Print. c. 1736. Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum.

It sounds flippant, but the question is critical when you are trying to map routes to source discovery. To enter an academic conversation on an issue, you should first consider which groups of researchers are engaging with it – and with each other – in discussion or debate. Sociologists, public policy experts, legislators, and economists all study America’s working poor, for example, but they may come at it from slightly different perspectives and emphasize slightly different things. Once you’ve posed the question “Who’s talking about my topic?” you can go a step further and ask yourself “where?” A course guide, a librarian, a chat with an instructor or TF can help you figure out the research resources in which these conversations are being collected, codified, and stored.
Remember that good  searching is really about language.

Newspaper Rock. Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi), Fremont and Ute cultures. Indian Creek Canyon, Utah, United States. Available through ArtSTOR.

Library catalogs, databases like those described in this toolkit, search engines like Google: the tools of research are by and large built of and fueled by words. Your success in discovering relevant sources will often hinge on how well and flexibly you can manipulate language to express an information need. So start with what’s easy. Enter the two, three, or four basic words that most nearly  describe  your topic and just see what the system turns up. But have a reserve vocabulary list at the ready, too. You may have to try several kinds of word combinations before you strike gold.
Resist the “grab and go”  approach to research.

Refine your search results.

When you see a title that looks promising in the HOLLIS catalog, you could take the obvious next step: write down the call number and be on your way. But a savvy researcher will look around his search results first. Embedded everywhere on the computer screen are clues to what else and what next: other good terms to use, links to related information, sometimes, a chance to preview the item’s contents, hints for how you might refine and modify.
Consider what a “minimum  numbers of sources” may really mean.

Alchemical poem. Bodleian Library. Available through ArtSTOR.

Often, assignments quantify sources for you, suggesting (or requiring) a number to use ( x books and/or y journals for example, or one source from perspective a and one from perspective b).  Most likely, that’s because your instructor wants you to have a research experience but also wants to be sure your own ideas and arguments don’t get lost amid other voices you’ll encounter. Source minimums are never an invitation to be random or slipshod in the choices you make. Your instructor can’t expect you to be exhaustive, but he or she will assume you’ll know to be selective.  So rather than quitting your research when you reach a magic number, try to generate more leads than you technically need.  That way, you have alternatives and can make good choices among them.  When you’re not sure what lies behind a source number requirement, however, make sure you ask before you begin.
Always pay attention.

Page from child's scrapbook during Russian Revolution, 1917-1921. Available through the HOLLIS Catalog.

The best researchers learn to be very conscious of their actions at every step of the way and to learn from the success (and sometimes, the failure) of what they do. Keep track of your search process from beginning to end; make mental notes on what strategies work best, what patterns you find, what you begin to expect. Then transfer that knowledge into the next database you search or into the next research project you’re assigned. Your decision making processes can teach you a lot about yourself, too, if you develop this habit of reflection.
Remember that you have  library lifelines at every step of the way.

Steve Kuehler, 2010.

If you‘ve learned to think about the library as a place to go (physically or virtually) to get some “stuff,” remember that the people behind the desks, behind the books, behind the scenes, and behind the websites are what make the library work. If you haven’t met a librarian in one of your first-year courses, ask your instructor, TF, a roommate, a friend for a recommendation. Stop by a reference desk in one of the Harvard Libraries in and around the Yard. Find librarians to contact based on their special subject expertise. We always want to help!

Options for Starting

Undergraduates access the Harvard Libraries in all sorts of ways online,  of course, but as a freshman, you’ll probably first encounter us at one of these addresses: the Harvard Libraries Portal ( or  the  Harvard College Library homepage (

  • The Harvard Libraries Portal, as the name implies, is the the main entry point or gateway for information about the university library system in its entirety. Typically, Harvard librarians will work from the Portal page in class sessions and consultations. In part that’s because the Portal page presents you with the fullest picture of the breadth of what we offer you. Our more than 70 locations comprise the great federation of people, services, and materials that are at your disposal as a student here.

  • A subset of those units also belongs to a federation of another kind, known as the  Harvard College Library. HCL exists specifically to support the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, graduate students in the School of  Arts and Sciences, and the undergraduate population here. For that reason, when you click on the Library tab from within my.Harvard,  or when you open a web browser on certain library computers, the HCL homepage is the system default.

Both sites will lead you to the same set of source discovery tools, so the choice between them is really just a matter of personal preference. But here’s how to understand the two:

The HCL site focuses most prominently on the services that we offer and learning supports we’ve put in place: research guides we create, classes we offer, methods of contacting librarians for general and specialized research help, forms that expedite access to certain materials you want to see.


The Harvard Libraries Portal page puts more emphasis on identifying (and grouping) points of information access: catalogs, e-journal collections, a whole suite of information-finding tools that comprise our e-resources collection, the helpful software we make available, like RefWorks.

Source Discovery in HOLLIS: Harvard’s essential research tool

What’s in it for you?

It’s true that, initially at least, you’ll use HOLLIS much like you used high school or public library catalogs in a not-too-distant past -- to search for research studies and scholarship published in books. However, if that’s the only way you understand HOLLIS, or the only reason you use it as an undergraduate here, you’ll miss out on one of the great perks of a Harvard education: access to a library system that’s among the best in the world.

At your disposal is a knowledge base that Harvard has been accumulating, deliberately and continuously, for nearly four hundred years. The contents of Harvard libraries cover all languages and all eras of history; they represent all branches of learning and all parts of the globe. They are massive: upwards of 16,000,000 items, according to some estimates, a number that inches ever higher all the time. And they exist in an extraordinary array of forms: as manuscripts, maps, data sets, sound recordings, photographs and films, legal documents, cultural artifacts, and more.

HOLLIS Catalog homepage

What’s in a name?

HOLLIS is the name of Harvard’s online catalog, a large database that brings together information about library materials that are housed in buildings across campus, stored at off-site locations, like the Harvard Depository, or provided to you in digital form. Thomas Hollis was an important 18th century library benefactor, and a member of the family for whom Harvard’s oldest building, Hollis Hall, is also named.

Any library catalog is essentially an inventory list of a collection, and it may help you to conceptualize HOLLIS in these terms. Each item in HOLLIS is represented by a catalog record, which at once describes its salient features and links it to other library materials that are similar in subject coverage or form. HOLLIS records use call numbers to indicate an item’s physical location on library shelves. Online materials in HOLLIS are identified with web addresses that make them virtually available to you from anywhere, at any time.

Veritas Shield

Think of HOLLIS as the great historical record of human achievement, activity and intellectual aspiration as the Harvard community – the community to which you now belong – has understood it, valued it, preserved it, and tried to order it over time. You should also see it as a living record, a reflection of what Harvard library users (in all their varieties) still need us to provide them so they can get the important work of research, teaching, and learning done. Why wouldn’t you start your source discovery process here?

General strategies for search HOLLIS well

(Click to expand)
  • Build from what you have already: The “item in hand” approach.
    • An author, a core text from your class, the title of a book that your instructor recommends can all be promising avenues to related information in HOLLIS. Look around the item record – and especially at the linked subject terms for ideas about where to go next.
  • Build up and out from what you know already: the standard “keyword” approach.
    • When you don’t have a known item to jumpstart your HOLLIS searching, just use whatever language comes naturally to you. One reasonably close item in your search results list may yield additional verbal clues: other words that you might substitute for the ones you’ve started with or specialized vocabulary terms. If they don’t? Think about other ways to describe your topic – and try again.
  • Set limits.
    • You can restrict your HOLLIS search a bit by language(s), by genre, by format, by year(s) of publication, for example. Limits all display to the right hand side of the HOLLIS screen.
  • Look “underneath the hood” of an item record you find in HOLLIS.
    • Many times, limit categories only display partially on the front page; one more click in can reveal a whole other world of research possibilities. Always check what’s  hidden behind the word  “more.”
  • Change your perspective by changing display defaults.
    • HOLLIS – like Google – is designed to display the most “relevant” records first. If currency is most important to you, however, choose “year (descending)” from the drop-down menu above the first result and to the right. When large limit categories become unwieldy or difficult to search, remember that you can resort these, too, into an alphabetically arranged list.
  • Make it a habit to scroll all the way down.
    • Below the “availability” information, you may discover that a table of contents exists. That’s another handy way to check the relevance of an item before you go looking for it in the library stacks.  Sometimes, too, the limit categories extend further down the screen.
  • Follow the “Discover more in Google Books” links when they’re available.
    • While you probably won’t find lots of recently published books  that you can read in their entirety online, you can often “preview” portions of a book’s contents or search for instances of your search terms. Sometimes, these strategies can just help you see if a book is a bona fide lead, a source to consider if time permits, or an item you can disregard without feeling too many qualms.
  • Mark and store potentially useful items in a temporary HOLLIS folder.
    • Before you exit the catalog, you can e-mail, print out or download the folder list. If you’ve learned to use RefWorks or any other bibliography-building software program, you can have the items sent there.

Special ways to use HOLLIS well

When you need authoritative contexts or background information (and Wikipedia won’t do)...
Add one of these words to a broad keyword search: encyclopedias, handbooks, companion, introduction, overview, casebook.
When you want primary source materials of various kinds, in original or republished  forms...
Try adding the term sources to a keyword search of a historical moment (like the American Revolution or the Rwandan genocide). This term can also be used for when you are interested in origins (of a text, an idea, an event, for example). Other terms (among many) that may sometimes do the trick include diaries, correspondence, photographs, speeches, interviews, public opinion polls, documentary films. Primary source materials will often emerge, too, if you add a century marker to your keyword string: 18th, 19th, 16th and the like. Or run a keyword search and then browse your search results by publication date ( “all years by decade” will give the fullest list).
When you need data in its numerical forms...
Statistics and census are words you might try or a phrase like this one (minus the quotation marks): charts, diagrams etc.
When you want certain kinds of secondary source materials to turn up...
criticism and interpretation can be a helpful addition to a search for studies of an author, an artist, a literary work. History, biography, or common terms defining aspects of your topic ( like social, economic, political,  or religious) can power up a keyword search and add specificity to keyword strings. Mine the format, subject and genre lists that appear on the right hand side of a search results screen to discover other helpful terms.

Journal articles: the essential research form

3 databases to know

Database selection can be tricky when you’re faced with as much choice as you’re offered on the E-Resources page, of course. So unless your instructors have indicated a preference for another kind of research tool or have identified a specific database by name that you should use, we recommend that you experiment with one (or all) of the journal databases we’ve singled out for you here:

  • Strengths
    • ASP is a well-calibrated mix of scholarly journal articles, magazines and some major news publications.
  • Features
    • ASP is large (about 8700 publications are covered and about half of these are peer-reviewed). It casts a wide net in terms of subject coverage, too, so your results will often include a range of disciplinary perspectives.
  • Possible Downsides
    • Sometimes, ASP will feel broader than it is deep – at which point, you just need to expand beyond it. Try JSTOR or Web of Science, described below.

  • Strengths
    • Its trusted, authoritative content, all of it drawn from the “core” journals (those that have proved, over time, to be most important, most influential or most read in academic circles). That translates into about 1300 titles in 53 subject fields. JSTOR lets you search broadly across its content but also encourages to think in terms of knowledge disciplines.
  • Features
    • It lets you view the visual evidence (graphs, photographs, etc.) that accompany journal articles and identifies related images in a companion database, ArtSTOR. Potentially, any of these items might serve as primary source materials in your writing.
  • Possible Downsides
    • Very little recent content. Most JSTOR titles exclude the most current 3-5 years of a publication. You should start your search elsewhere if you know that your topic has emerged much more recently. However, even if you find sufficient material in JSTOR, get in the habit of checking your results against those in Academic Search Premier, just to confirm that you’re working with research that’s still considered up to date.

  • Strengths
    • Web of Science is a broad and multidisciplinary database of journals and magazine publications that are frequently read and often referenced in academic research.
  • Features
    • The ability to sort your search results not just by date of publication or relevance, but also by "times cited." Since scholarship is built on precedent, the knowledge of who’s been cited most can sometimes help you identify current (or emerging) authorities on a topic or in a debate. Web of Science is also a pretty good resource for locating academic and scholarly book reviews.
  • Possible Downsides
    • As you might expect from the database title, its contents are heavily weighted toward the sciences. Of the 10,000 so journals it lets you search, only 1900 focus on the social sciences and only about 1300 are humanities oriented. If your topic falls into one of these areas (or a related subfield), supplement your searching with one of the other databases, to be sure there’s not important information you are missing.

Rome: Sistine Chapel Prophet Zechariah: det.: of prophet. 1508-12. Available through ArtSTOR.

journal covers

Why you use them

Journal articles are the academic’s stock in trade, the basic means of communicating research findings to an audience of one’s peers. In some fields, like the sciences (for example), where information accrues rapidly and must be disseminated quickly, journal articles are actually the researcher’s preferred means of communication. In disciplines like the humanities, where knowledge develops more gradually and is driven less by issues of time-sensitivity, journal articles may simply offer the more appropriate vehicle. Not all important and influential ideas warrant book-length studies, and some inquiry is better suited to the size and scope and concentrated discussion that articles afford.

Regardless of the discipline, however, journal articles perform an important knowledge-updating function. Searching the journal literature is part of being a responsible researcher. It’s the way you can be sure that the data you have or the scholarly conversation you’re following is in its most current form.

Databases: why you’ll need them

Here’s the dilemma you immediately face, however: journal articles won’t turn up when you search the library catalog. HOLLIS can only help you identify journal titles in our collections, tell you which libraries own (“hold”) them, and confirm their availability either in print or in online form.

The equally critical details about what’s inside any journal – who’s writing on what topics in which volumes and on what pages – is just not information that HOLLIS has been built to provide.

Luckily, the Harvard libraries offer you a set of other good tools to open journal contents up. We often refer to them as “databases,” and we classify them as E-Resources. E-Resources are listed under the Articles and More box on the Harvard Libraries Portal page. You can link into E-Resources from the very top of the HCL homepage.

Common features of library databases

(Click to expand)
  • Two types of search screens: basic and expanded...
    • While “basic” screens are straightforward invitations to string words together and see where a search goes, the “advanced search” screens of databases are typically more powerful. They offer a host of other ways to manipulate language and more precisely and deliberately control and shape a search before you run it. And incidentally, Google, Google Scholar (and HOLLIS) offer advanced search options, too.
  • Two types of search language: keywords and subjects...
    • Keywords are the terms you think up to describe your topic or information need. Subject terms come from a standardized vocabulary list and are chosen by catalogers to describe intellectual content of an item in precise and common ways. They add value to a search by helping you find additional items that are related in emphasis, cover similar content, or have the same purpose. Subject terms  are what ensure that you get to all the relevant information on a given topic, regardless of the keywords with which you start.
  • Options to modify and sort results...
    • Most databases will present you with ways you can drill down into your initial search results to get better or just more targeted information to surface closer to the top. Limiting to English (or other languages), by publication (title or type), or to a range of years are commonly offered options for customizing a search. Some databases (like Academic Search Premier and JStor) will follow the Google model and rank results by relevance; others (like Web of Science) use reverse chronological order (date descending) as the default. Rearranging may help you gain perspective and clarity, especially when you are in the topic-defining stage or when you’re dealing with a large search results set.
  • Article previews...
    • Many databases now allow you to sample article content or view some of its parts: an opening page or two, its bibliography, images and graphs accompany the written text, a list of works that have cited it since its publication. These features can help you evaluate the potential utility of a source for your particular research problem – and sometimes, they’ll lead you to interesting research places you might not otherwise have found.
  • Links to information about full-text availability...
    • Many journal databases now include at least some articles in full-text. When you’re working in a resource that doesn’t, however, you’ll almost always see a button next to each search result. FindIt is software which will identify options elsewhere in the Harvard library for retrieving the article in full-text. When there isn’t another online route to the information, FindIt will search the HOLLIS catalog so you’ll know which Harvard Libraries have the item in print.
  • Ready-made citations for your bibliographies...
    • Journal databases often allow you to generate citations in MLA, APA, Chicago, and other commonly used bibliographic styles - stress free. Citation icons or format options usually appear when you get ready to download or email your search results. Then cut and paste the information into a “works cited” page.

Citation Linker and RefWorks: essential research software

As well as providing you with the tools for discovering research sources, the Harvard library system also offers you ways to manage the information you discover in journal databases and in the HOLLIS catalog. Two are especially important for you to know about in your first year.

Citation linker screenshot

Citation Linker: one of our coolest software tools for research

To understand what Citation Linker is and what it does, picture this very typical scenario:

For a first year seminar on “The History of the Book,” a professor asks you to read the following article:

Blair, Ann. 2003. Reading strategies for coping with information overload, ca.1550-1700. Journal of the History of Ideas 64, no. 1: 11-28.

It’s not in your coursepack, however, and isn’t listed as a reserve reading on your course iSite. 

In instances like these, Citation Linker is your best bet and the easiest way to track the article down. It’s listed prominently in two places on the Harvard Libraries Portal Page:  under “Tools” and “Articles and More.”

A click into Citation Linker opens a screen that prompts you for the journal name. You can add other information, too, if you wish, like the volume number and publication year, although a barebones journal title search will usually do. Then click on the purple button on the right side of the screen.

This button is your ticket to research gold.

If the journal you're after is one of the 22,000 or so that the Libraries own in online form, your options for viewing, retrieving, and printing it will automatically display. In that case, your next step is spectacularly easy: just point and click once more.

The great thing about Citation Linker is that it searches the HOLLIS catalog at the same time that it's identifying your online access options -- just in case there's also (or only) a print copy of the journal available in the libraries here.

And by the way: Citation Linker can be made to work with GoogleScholar too. Ask a librarian to show you how!

refworks screenshot


RefWorks allows you to organize these references in one or more virtual folders. And most importantly, it produces instant bibliographies in a citation style of your choice (APA, MLA, Chicago, among others). It can also be set to format the footnotes (or in-text citations) of documents you write with Microsoft Word. Lamont Librarians teach 50 minute RefWorks classes throughout the academic year – a small investment of time that will have big payoffs for you over the next four years. Find out more about RefWorks (including training session times) here.

Research beyond the Library Starter Kit and the first year

A starter kit is just what its name implies. Even for your third Expos essay, you may need to supplement the “all-purpose” source discovery tools we’ve offered to you here. Get comfortable asking librarians (or your instructors) “where else?” and “what more?” Research is always about finding the right tool to match your information needs. And there are hundreds of e-resources in our system from which to choose.

If you want to explore E-Resources further on your own, here are few other things you can try:

e-resources at Harvard
  • Look around the Quick Jumps list on the Find E-Resources page.
    Some of the databases that get heaviest use around campus are listed in alphabetical order under the menu tab there.
  • Click on the Keyword Tab Keywords
    This screen just allows you to identify e-resources a bit more flexibly, using words you supply. Broad terms such as “news” or “psychology” or “literature” work best. Also try combining your keywords with information from one of the category lists we’ve included on the page.
  • Click on the Subject Tab Keywords
    This will generate your e-resources options. Here you match a broad subject field with one of the designated resource types (dictionaries and encyclopedias, indexes to journal articles, etc.)

Keep in mind that research tools need replacing every now and again, and that will certainly be the case when you enter a concentration in your sophomore year. Every academic discipline has at least one e-resource that’s considered the best place for researchers to start, and you’ll learn what these are in time. You may discover that what counts as source evidence (or primary source material) is different in a concentration, too. But the research skills you’ve learned in Expos are a good foundation on which to build; adapt them to the learning environments that concentrations will create.

Dozens upon dozens of research guides are always at your fingertips at the HCL Web Site.

Every undergraduate academic program and department has a library liaison assigned to it: a knowledgeable person who will be a primary point of contact for concentrators, who will shepherd you through your sophomore or junior tutorial writing project and even see you through the thesis, if you write one, in your senior year.

For many of these programs and departments, librarians have also assembled thorough and extremely useful research guides.

Harvard Librarians are waiting to help you in every corner of the campus. Reach us in whatever ways are most comfortable for you, or most convenient. Some good options are listed on the Ask A Librarian page. The important thing is to ask!