I wrote up the following as a guideline for a research paper I've assigned my students. Some of it is specific to the assignment, but enough touches on the nuts and bolts of film studies research, that I though I'd share, in case any readers find it useful, either for themselves or their students. Any feedback is welcome, and I'll try to revise to a fuller guide when I get time.
Library use for Film and Television Studies
Beginning students often feel understandably overwhelemed by the university library. There are so many resources, yet one does not always find articles or books on one's topic. Research therefore involves practical problems: how do I track down useful material? how do I match these database hits to the assignment? But equally, research involves knowing what you are looking for and why.
Primary research is the research you do as a student historian. We’re talking about the raw material that historical interpretation deals with – documents, news articles, reviews, and even films. (Note that not all types of research papers require primary research, only - usually - history papers.) Trade periodicals are newspapers and magazines that cover an industry for a readership largely inside the industry. Examples include Variety and Advertising Age. These should not be taken as gospel, but they're a good start to study Hollywood and television as industries. Popular periodicals are newspapers and magazines with a mass audience. Examples include Time and Newsweek. Historical issues of trade and popular periodicals are sometimes digitized and sometimes bound, but usually you will need to use microfilm or microfiche to read older copies of either trade or popular periodicals. Reading microform can strain the eyes after a while, but there is no substitute for the discoveries you can have delving right into the material from the past, rather than relying on someone else's version of it (if such a history exists).
Secondary research is the research that others have done before you, that you can use in your own paper. One of the signs of maturity as a college student is to move away from the high-schooler’s use of sources (as mere authority) to a scholar’s use of sources (as part of a conversation into which you are entering). As such, secondary research can provide historical background, interpretations with which you agree or disagree (or both), or a source of concepts that help illuminate your material. The best papers do not relegate scholarship to an afterthought but use it to spur the creative process.
Secondary research should look primarily to properly academic sources. What’s a proper source?
• Single-author books put out on a scholarly press, often a university press.
• Edited volumes from such presses
• Articles in peer- or editorial board- reviewed journals
Reviewed journals in film studies include Cinema Journal, Screen, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Camera Obscura, The Velvet Light Trap, and Film and History. Some non-reviewed journals may also contain rigorous scholarship. A simple rule of thumb is that if the writing lacks footnotes/endnotes, it is very probably not an academic source.
For fields like history, there is a little more leeway as books intended for a popular audience can hold some use for the scholar. Even here, though, endnotes serve as a documentation system that guarantees our ability to corroborate information.
Journal articles will be indexed in a database. The major databases to check for film and television studies are Film Literature Index, MLA Bibliography, and Communication and Mass Media Complete. Sometimes, full-text databases will have entire articles available in .pdf version. Use these electronic resources, by all means, but do not limit yourself to these. You will need to hunt down books and photocopy articles. Get familiar with the stacks in your library: the PN 1992-1998 range will contain most of the film sources and many of the television studies sources. Browsing the stacks can be a surprisingly helpful research method. Also, don't overlook bibliographies to books and works cited/footnotes to articles as a pointer to material for your paper.
The computer is both friend and foe. Internet research, unless well-designed, comes across as lazy. Wikipedia should be used like an encyclopedia (and not a fully reliable one at that): as a reference for your own background information but not as a source. Do not cite Wikipedia in your papers. Instead, find the original and more reliable source for the information or claim.
Finally, if you're doing the right thing and looking at the academic literature on your topic, you are likely to come across writing that seem obscure, jargony, or difficult. Make what you can of your material, prioritize what is useful, and do not sweat the details. You are not being asked to contribute at the same level as a seasoned or specialized scholar but rather to provide a fresh insight, some original research, or a new way at looking at film and television. Even a modest contribution to our understanding of media and its place in the world can be rewarding for you and your instructor.
[post amended per comments]