Finding your materials, part 4:

Snowballing is an old-fashioned and very efficient strategy to build your bibliography and to find the info you need. (Imagine what life was like when there were no computer databases to look things up on, and a researcher would have to go through hard copy indexes--it literally could take months!) The term "Snowballing" is a metaphor: think of how children make a snow-man by rolling a small snowball so that it increases in size by picking up more snow.

To snowball: Choose a source that you find very helpful, then use this source as a springboard or signpost for where to go next:

  • Make use of an author's footnotes: if he / she mentions something of interest to you and provides a footnote, look up that source, and snowball from there.
  • Check out the bibliography. Is there anything there that sounds promising? Look it up, and continue snowballing!
  • Does the author mention a topic that relates to your interests? Look it up then continue snowballing!
  • Although typically an encyclopedia article or Internet source is NOT considered an appropriate source for a serious paper, you can certainly use these resources for snowballing. For example, you can look something up in Wikipedia, which normally is not an acceptable source to use in a term paper footnote or bibliography, or Oxford Art Online (Available by subscription--usually by a Library--so check your Library). Check out the Research page on this website for links to more resources. Many college and university libraries have pages on their websites to guide you to their art resources. Read the article. Useful? Then check out the bibliography of the article.
  • It may seem counterintitive, but remember that you can snowball quite productively from sources that you know are unreliable--sources that you wouldn't include in your Select Bibliography. In a letter to Sister Mandeleve, C.S.C, of Notre Dame, Indiana--who had asked for help in building her bibliography for a work relating to the Middle Ages--C. S. Lewis (of Narnia fame) says:

Remember (this has been all important to me) that what you want to know about the Middle Ages will often not be in a book on the Middle Ages, but in the early chapters of some history of general philosophy or science. The acccounts of your period in such books will, of course, usually be patronizing and ill-informed, but it will mention dates and authors whom you can follow up and thus put you in the way of writing a true account for yourself.1

Do you see how snowballing lets other writers do much of your work for you? They've already found good material on your topic, and all you need to do is follow up on what they've done. Of course a limitation of snowballing is that the sources your chosen author uses are ones published before the publication date of the source you have found so helpful. So, be aware of the dates of the works you snowball from and be sure to check more recent sources as well.

............1C. S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1966) 157.

© Jan Mainzer