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University of York Library
Library Subject Guides

Searching for information: a practical guide

Framing your research

Searching for information is not always straightforward. We got a bunch of librarians to suggest some insider pointers and useful techniques.

We've already considered how the question we're trying to answer might lead us to different information sources: What time's the next train? might lead us to a train timetable; What have I seen that actor in? might lead us to a filmography... Just as there's a whole host of places where we might try to find cheese, similarly there's a whole host of places where we might try to find information.

Over the next two sections of this guide we'll be looking in detail at different types of source, both physical and electronic. But how do we know what type of source we're likely to need? We've seen on the previous page of this guide that in answering an academic question we're likely to be drawing on academic sources, and we've had a pointer there as to what some common academic sources might be. But it might not be so straightforward, and even if it is, there may be limits to what we're after.

On this page we'll consider how you can think about your research topic to help focus in on the information that will be most relevant to your interests. If you're in a position where you need to develop your own research question, this approach will be particularly useful. But even with something like a set essay question, you're still going to need to think about the potential places you'll need to explore.

Information sources

You can use the Context Hexagon below to help contextualise your research topic and identify which types of information will best address your information need. Examining your existing knowledge of the topic with reference to these six categories can help you identify what it is you already know and what you need to find out. Click on a context and see the appropriate resources to support it.


Statistical data relating to a population and particular groups within it; provides insight into the composition or characteristics of such a group.

Key questions

  • Does you project focus on a particular group?
  • Do you know how big this group is in relation to the wider population?
  • What are the dynamics of the group (e.g. gender, background, beliefs etc.)?


Statistics, datasets, market reports, government reports, country reports...


The circumstances or situation pertaining at a particular time or underlying a particular event; includes causes, origins, and history.

Key questions

  • Do you understand the terminology?
  • Can you describe the factors and influences leading to the scenario?
  • Are you aware of existing theories or schools of thought?


Dictionaries, encyclopaedia, textbooks, literature reviews...


Recognised criteria used to define actions, protect individuals and groups, regulate procedures, and certify performance; usually produced by government, organisations, and professional bodies.

Key questions

  • Do you need to consider legal provision?
  • Are there any standards or agreed procedures?
  • Are there consequences associated with failure to comply or act upon criteria?


Policies, standards, statutes, codes of practice, command papers...


Bodies with a particular purpose, e.g. businesses, government departments or charities, with a responsibility for (or interest in) arranging, coordinating, gathering support, or providing information on the subject.

Key questions

  • Are there any regulating bodies?
  • Are there specific government departments, NGOs, or other organisations to consider?
  • What is the significance of these organisations?


Pamphlets, websites, strategy documents, annual reports...


Particular attitudes towards a way of regarding something; the aspect of the subject, as perceived from a particular point of view.

Key questions

  • How does the topic connect to other issues, theories and disciplines?
  • How are the approaches to the topic similar and different?
  • Are there areas of conflict or disagreement?


Books, journal articles, newspaper articles, reports...


The extent of the area or subject matter which is relevant or possible to deal with within the constraints of the assignment. Your answers to the other elements of the hexagon will inform the scope you set.

Key questions

  • What will the project cover and what will it exclude?
  • Are there specific limits that you will apply to the project?
  • Is your research question expressed in a way that will allow you to retrieve appropriate information?

Developing a search strategy

Framing your research question

In this session we look at how to come up with a workable research question with regard to available literature: is there enough information to provide a suitable background? What limits will you need to set? It's a session which is ideal for anyone about to start on a dissertation or thesis. We explore a range of different sources including academic, government and organisational literature.

Finding a research topic

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