But I’ve never even heard of this person!

Does your biography assignment have you stumped?  If your teacher handed you a name to research, but you don’t know anything about the person, how do you start?

Sometimes the process is pretty easy.  You might look for the person’s name in the biography section (they’re all in order by the name of the person the book is about) and find exactly what you need.  This is the point when some people panic, because sometimes there is  no biography!  What then?

Try looking up the person’s name in the library catalog.  You might find a book with information about the person that isn’t in the biography section.  For example, we don’t have a biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi but we do have Wonder Kids and Women Mathematicians.  One book is under the Dewey number 920 for biographies about more than one person; the other one is under the number 510 for her area of expertise, mathematics.

If you can’t find anything in the catalog, we might still have a book with the information you need.  Some books, like the ones in the reference section, have facts about so many people that they can’t all be listed in the computer catalog record.  Instead, the person’s name will be listed in the index (usually in the back of the book; if you are looking at encyclopedias or another set of books, the index may be a whole separate book).

It helps to know something about the person you want to research.  For example, if you have a Black History Month assignment and you can tell from the name that the person must be a woman, you might try looking in Notable Black American Women.  If you know that the person you are researching was a scientist, you can try the Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists.  Any information you have will help you choose which books to check.

If you don’t know anything about the person you are supposed to research, you could try a book that covers lots of different topics, like an encyclopedia.  You could also try one of the library’s databases, like American National Biography Online or Facts on File.  These are both listed on our Social Studies Homework Help page and the lists of databases under the “Resources” tab on the library website.

If you are really stuck, you can look up the person’s name in Google or another search engine.  Some websites have information you can trust, but some might just be another kid’s homework (and who knows if they earned an A?).  Even if you don’t use any of the websites as your main source of facts, you might find enough information to let you start looking for other resources.

The other thing you can do if you’re stuck is ask a librarian for help!  We are here to help you find what you need.  -Miss Sarah

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