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Research Foundations: Book Research Streamlined

Do I have to read the whole thing?

Chances are good that you will not need to read an entire book for a research project. While reading the complete text would give you deep knowledge of the topic, this is not critical for research purposes. You might need to consult several sources to find the best information and time simply does not permit for reading each book in its entirety. Additionally, it is often unnecessary to read the entire text, as you likely only need certain chapters or sections to satisfy your information needs.

Look at the sections below for the two best navigation aids in books: the table of contents and the index.

Browse the Table of Contents

Tables of Contents Image

table of contents page

The table of contents is usually located within the first few pages of the book after the title and copyright pages. It outlines the sections contained in the book and the order that they appear in. Each section will typically have a chapter title and corresponding page numbers. In non-fiction books, the chapter titles are normally descriptive of the content in that section.

Scanning the table of contents is a great way to identify quickly the scope and purpose of the book. A table of contents can also allow you to determine if any of the sections will cover your topic. If you do not find a section or chapter that looks applicable, your next step is to check out the index which provides more specific topics and their pages.

Search the Index

Index Image Example

index section of a book

The index is located towards the back of the book. It contains an alphabetical list of persons, places, phrases, and subjects covered in the book.

Search through the entries to discover if your particular topic is in the index. The number of entries for your topic and corresponding pages numbers will indicate how much coverage the book will provide. For example, if your topic is only listed on a single page in a 300+ page book, it is likely that the book does not have substantial information on your topic. In contrast, if your topic is listed on multiple or consecutive pages, you can feel confident that this book is worth spending time exploring.

When searching for terms in the index, look for alternate ways to say the same topic like "automobiles" or "vehicles" instead of just "cars." In addition, people appear by their last name first. For example, George Washington would appear in an index as "Washington, George." You will notice many topics grouped with associated concepts called subentries. Use these sub-topics to explore related issues.