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Library Research - The Process: Find Background Information

The Five W's

The Five W’s are a good way to begin your thinking;

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why                                        

The Five W criteria can add context to your investigation and turn a topic into a research question.

  • The WHO describes an individual or select population you are investigating.
  • The WHAT describes a specific aspect or element that directly impacts the WHO.
  • WHEN is a time frame in which you might limit your investigation?
  • WHERE is a geographical location where you might focus. 
  • The WHY is the reason why this investigation is important or meaningful. The WHY is not necessarily a part of the final research question but more informative of the scope of the project in general.

So let’s try an example.

We want to research vaccine requirements. We can use the Five W’s to specify the scope of our investigation. If we want to investigate mandatory flu vaccines for school children in Kansas. The WHO of the investigation is school children and the WHAT is mandatory flu vaccines. The WHEN is the present. WHERE is Kansas. And our research question becomes “Should the flu vaccine be required for school children in Kansas?”

Consider your new research question in light of your investigation. Does it fit your task? If you are investigating “Should my five year old get the flu vaccine?” this research question might be a little too broad. If you are writing a book about preventing flu outbreaks, it is probably too narrow. If you are writing a five-page research paper about an aspect of flu transmission it’s probably just right.

You can also use the Five W’s to broaden the scope of the investigation to fit your task. If your task is to write a book about preventing flu outbreaks in the US. You could change the criteria in this way.

SCHOOL CHILDREN become AMERICANS; MANDATORY FLU VACCINE becomes PREVENTION. And you’ll need to change the WHEN to a timeline that might include the history of flu outbreaks, the current situation and how to prevent outbreaks in the future. KANSAS becomes UNITED STATES.

If your topic is too broad or vague you may be overwhelmed with information. If your question is too narrow you might not find anything at all. Before you start your investigation take a moment to refine your question. This step will help you focus your search and zero in on what you need to find.

Subject Encyclopedias in Print

Imagine the universe of information available on a given topic as water escaping from a firehose. You can use the 5W Criteria to help make the flow more manageable.

What is my question? Your research question is different than your topic.

For example, your topic might be racial profiling in law enforcement and its impact on racism. However, your research question might be something like: how do racial profiling and law enforcement influence racism?

So think about what is your main argument? Does racial profiling affect racism or not? In what ways do racial profiling and law enforcement influence racism?

You may want to think about the topic in terms of the personal, or ideological, the religious, or spiritual, social, or political, rhetorical, and vocational influences on racism.

You may want to start with a pro or con statement then move to more specifics. Then how does your research prove your argument? Are more questions raised during this questioning process? It's important to narrow your topic from general to specific.

Racism is a very broad topic and racial profiling narrows the topic to a more specific form of racism. Finally, law enforcement in the United States provides context.

Next, you'll need to investigate the topic by searching for articles in the library databases.

These are great places to gather your 5Ws!

The library has subject encyclopedias on a multitude of topics (e.g., The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture)

Subject authorities who write articles in these encyclopedias have included important references at the end of the articles. You may use these references to jumpstart your research.

Ask a librarian for help in locating a relevant encyclopedia. You also can search the library catalog using your topic as one keyword and encyclopedia as your second keyword (e.g., encyclopedia AND music).

Subject encyclopedias are one- or multi-volume sets on specific subjects. When your teacher says "No encyclopedias!" s/he does NOT mean these! It's well worth it to browse the reference shelves in the Library of Congress call number areas related to your topic for subject encyclopedias and other reference books.

Tip--If that reference book is just the thing, look in the circulating collection under the same call number and find more information! Sometimes older reference materials have been re-classified to circulating status. The call number for a subject is the same regardless of the medium/format!

The research process is a process of inquiry that is asking questions that reflect your thinking process. In other words, what am I thinking?

For more information on background information check out our Reference Sources page.

Adapted from and thanks to the New Literacies Alliance.

Subject Encyclopedia eBooks

Subject encyclopedias from Credo Reference can be a great place to begin your research by gathering your 5Ws. They include topic overviews that can help you narrow down your topic and identify keywords and concepts.

Logging in to Library Databases

Off-Campus access to Taft College Library databases is restricted to current students, faculty, & staff.

When prompted, use your Cougar Tracks username and password.

If you still have issues, please call the Information ITS Help Desk at (661) 763-7737 or email them at

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