How to Ask a Question
Philosophy 1301 w/ Colby Glass

Asking a question involves two initial challenges:

1. Asking the RIGHT question.
2. Being absolutely clear about the question you need to ask.

Both of these challenges involve learning something about the subject. This usually means a trip to the library, a visit to the World Wide Web, and talking to various people about the subject.

First, learn some terminology.. and the general shape and nature of the subject. There are four excellent places to begin, two which will take little time, and two which may require more of your time reading:

  • Encyclopedias (general and specialized)
  • Print Periodical Indexes
  • Books on the subject
  • World Wide Web

Encyclopedias are designed to give you a quick summary of the subject area.

Print periodical indexes are my favorite place to begin. They are organized by subject. If you use the wrong terminology they will refer you to the correct heading. Once there, the index will give you a list of other terms under which the subject might be found. The index also breaks the subject down into sub-categories. WRITE DOWN these terms. You will need them to talk intelligently, and you will need them when you get to the many electronic indexes and catalogs which give you NO feedback and no cross-referencing.

Once you have some terms, go to the library's catalog and see if there are any books on the subject. If so, find them and read their tables of contents. This will further your education in terminology and the structure of the subject area. You may want to read certain chapters which will clarify the subject for you.

If there are no books on the subject, look for a larger subject in which your subject might be covered. For instance, if you are looking for railroad engines, you may have to look for books on railroads. Go through the books on railroads looking in the index in the back of each book for the terms (like engine) for which you are looking. Another example. If you are looking for information on General Robert E. Lee, you may need to look at books on the Civil War in the United States.

Finally, try doing a search on the World Wide Web, keeping in mind that the Web is not an edited system and that you may have to go through an awful lot of garbage before finding anything useful. On the other hand, the Web is one of the best places to find alternative news sources and contrarian views. These are useful in debunking social myths and erroneous stories which could lead you to ask the wrong question.

If you have trouble with any of these steps, talk to a librarian. These people have graduate degrees in finding information. They tend to be friendly, and very helpful. Don't be bashful. GET HELP.

Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

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