So you want to learn to research well, and not waste any time. Let's do it. Here are a few NECESSARY preliminary points.
First, adopt an aggressive I-am-taking-over-this-place mindset.
2. Develop a system for executing research process. By creating your own rules to follow systematically, you really speed things up. Don't have one? No worries. You can use mine. I happen to have "research animal" stamped on my forehead.
3. Follow rules. You can tweek them to suit your own style after a couple of runs with this method. But these make for great training wheels.
4. Before going into battle, always ready your weapons.
Do not go near a library or desk to start research unless and until everything you will need sits neatly arranged all about you for quick access. This one is your call. I use 2 or 3 pens and a pad of paper to scratch out notes and thoughts, and a pack of index cards for especially important notes. Then come highlighters. In college, I used to work highlighters until they overheated.
Some people like sticky notes (post-its). You can stick 'em all around you as you work. You will want a rolodex and a phone nearby in case you have to call someone you know to ask questions. For instance, if you have a specially-gifted techie friend in your inner circle, or know a professor, you may want to put him on speed dial. Think a bit about anything else you might need. Some folks study and research well to music, so get your headphones if you need them. Okay, here we have system lined up for you.
PART #1: Begin Reconnaissance. You're going in.
A. Get an overview and "contextualize" your topic. Learn its timeline of events and major historical factors associated with it. When did it happen? What did it do? Why do people care about it at all? Find a short article that outlines history of, or at least offers a timeline for, your topic. Everything has a history, and gaining a quick overview of your topic's chronology will give you context into which all your other sources will fit.
B. Next, ride wave. This is surfing and browsing stage. Start with what you know. Pick out words associated with your topic or subject and Google them. When you land a starting topic (you can change this as you go, no worries. Just start somewhere.), use online encyclopedias and other resources to get a "quick snapshot" of general views on subject that exist out there already. Try to see your subject from as many angles as possible, as it were, "walking all way round it," inspecting as you go. Ask questions in your head, or even out loud like I do (caution: this may scare people), and put them down on paper in a special spot. Slap a sticky note on it that reads "QUESTIONS I HAVE."
To aid and abet developing a "snapshot overview," start looking up books on topic. Find 10 of them. Note titles on maybe 50 books -- if you can find that many -- about your subject or topic. Note overlap in words used in titles about your topic. This will give you a quick idea about who or what this topic means to others who have already studied it.
Next, read bibliographies of books. One good book can give you 5-10 great leads you might never have found otherwise. Note titles that show up repeatedly in different bibliographies. In research geekspeak this is "bibbo," bibliographic overlap. Bibbo identifies your IRT's -- Initial Research Targets. Photocopy or print out from your IRT's: table of contents; first chapter; a middle chapter that looks interesting or helpful; and final chapter. Then read these and highlight Dickens out of them. This gives you a snapshot, and a working knowledge, of entire book extremely fast. It works too. Use your scribbled out question set as a filter for "what to look for" -- and highlight or take notes on -- when reading your IRT's. Write down any further questions that develop. These can be as simple as "Who is that guy?" Let your curiosity guide you, and let sticky notes FLY!!
Next, read journal and magazine articles. How do you find these? Try checking your Bibbo. Or just follow any that you think might land you somewhere interesting. Play detective. Follow your nose if you smell a good lead.