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Guide to Research and Writing for the Academic Study of Religion

Preliminary Research

Developing a good research question is impossible without doing some preliminary research.  Preliminary research gives you background information on your topic, answering questions such as who, what, when and where.  This research will also help you determine controversies related to your topic and determine if there are enough sources available to cover the topic effectively.

 You will encounter and learn much more information than you will convey in your final paper. Background information will enrich your research paper but should not bog it down in trivia. For example, if you were doing a paper on Hildegaard of Bingen, you should know that she was born into a noble family in Germany in 1098 and entered a hermitage at the age of eight and became a Benedictine Abbess. This information will help you contextualize her work in your own mind but your research paper should not be a simple recitation of these facts. Your research question should take you beyond the common knowledge found in encyclopedias, but without that  common knowledge your research will lack a solid foundation.

TIP - Doing the work of establishing in advance that your topic is viable will help you write a strong research paper and avoid a change of topic at the last minute, saving you time and agony in the long run. Make sure your topic is viable by keeping in mind its appropriateness to the assignment and its controversial nature, as well as the availability of adequate sources.

What follows is a list of resources that you may find useful for doing preliminary research in the field of Religious Studies. Keep in mind the type of information that you will need based on your preliminary topic and where your topic falls in the topic pyramid. Remember that the pyramid is a continuum rather than a series of discrete stages, so your topic likely will draw on both columns for some resources.

Resources for Preliminary Research





Subject-Specific Dictionaries & Encyclopedias

N.B. Be aware of publication dates, especially on web-based reference material

See Religious Studies: Select Listing of Encyclopedias and Dictionaries

Get an overview of your topic

Fill gaps in prior knowledge

Free-Standing Bibliographies

These are bibliographies that list every item relevant to a particular subject within certain limits. They list important titles, include items you may not otherwise find, and often highlight parts of works that could be useful.

To locate library's holding of bibliographies -  search the Library Search Box for your topic combined with the term "bibliography"

See also : List of open-access Religious Studies Bibliographies -compiled by Saundra Lipton


Get an idea of what topics are covered in the area you have chosen

Find sources for your topic

Scholarly books

If you find a book that is appropriate to your topic, browse the shelves around it for other books in the same topic area. At this point, you will not need to read any of these books cover to cover.

Use Library Search Box  - filter results to books

Also use Google Books and ProQuest ebook central to search within the text of books to locate works of interest


Find ideas based on book's topics

Find ideas in the table of contents and indexes

Check availability of sources

Refine topic by scanning entries in tables of contents and indexes

Journal Articles

Use Research Databases - see especially Religious Studies listing

Get ideas based on article topics

Find current debates

Check availability of sources

Subject Web pages

See, for example, the University Library Subject Page for Religious Studies 

Browse for ideas

Find sources


If you are having trouble finding resources, the help of a reference librarian or subject librarian could prove invaluable. They are there to help you!
Book  Research appointment with a Subject Librarian or go to the reference desk on the first floor of the Taylor Family Digital Library..


For more information on selecting preliminary sources see:

WISPR: Workshop on the Information Search Process for Research