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Expos 20 | Are Prisons Obsolete?

Resources and Research Strategies for Essay 3


This resource guide has been designed for students in ARE PRISONS OBSOLETE?, a Spring 2022 Expos 20 course taught by Hudson Vincent. 

The resources and strategies described on this page are specifically targeted: they represent our first best guesses at where you might find research leads, policy studies, and current scholarly conversations around issues related to prisons in the United States.  

See our suggestions simply as starting points -- a preliminary toolkit or research workbench. 

Remember that good research is often about following up on hunches, testing out a hypothesis and then seeing where else (or to what else) it leads. You may need to try several search combinations before you strike gold. 

Let me know if questions arise at any point in your project. We'll triage by email or set up a time to meet in person on Zoom. 

Enjoy your work! 

Sue Gilroy, Librarian for Undergraduate Writing Programs, Lamont Library


Incarceration from the Prisoner Perspective: Primary Sources

Some Collections to Explore


Leads from HOLLIS


Prison Advocacy Organizations

As evidence, their reports often include stories or individuals, case studies, profiles, and statistics. They can be great sources for proposed solutions, too, if you're arguing normatively -- i.e. on what should be done.

Finding Legislation and Prison Reforms: Some Leads

As evidence, these sources are great when you are looking for evidence of how the government, on the state or local level is engaging with prison-related issues. Legislation can sometimes "anchor" your argument -- help to make it concrete by serving as an illustration of something -- or serve as the basis of the argument itself.

Some leads: 

News Sources


Nexis Uni

  • A source of news, but also contains busiess and company information and some legal materials (like law reviews). 
  • Use the "Guided Search" (News) box rather than the one at the top of the screen to zero in on news information; you can limit your results by format (e.g., newspapers), dates, publication title (like New York Times, etc.). 
  • Good word to add to find original/investigative journalism that may quote individuals with first-hand knowledge of your prison issue:  interview
  • Use your HOLLIS search conventions here!



  • A major news database for current (and relatively recent) news.  It is the major competitor to Nexis Uni.
  • Use your HOLLIS search conventions here!
  • Make sure you adjust the date range -- default is just previous 3 months.  We recommend you just choose All Available Dates.
  • Resort your results if you need to. The default is to "display most recent." Sorting by relevancy is often a better option. 


Ethnic News Watch

  • a database that canvasses scholarly journals but also news. 
  • Its strength is in the kinds of publications: some of the important African American newspapers, as well as a range of ethnic ad minority press titles.
  • Searchable in Spanish and English.
  • Limit your results to newspapers if you need to.   
  • Good word to add to find original/investigative journalism that may quote individuals with first-hand knowledge of your prison issue:  interview


Statistical Sources


Criminal Justice Facts (Sentencing Project)

Data Toolbox (Prison Policy Initiative) 

Bureau of Justice Statistics  (US Gov)



LIBRARY DATA EXPERT: Diane Sredl, Data Librarian, Lamont Library 

Understanding the Stakes: Authoritative Contexts and Backgrounds

Oxford Bibliographies Online

Put this resource in the research toolkit you're starting to assemble for yourself: it will be handy for lots of academic projects you'll undertake here.  OBOs are selective (not comprehensive) reading lists, put together and annotated by scholars, and they are regularly reviewed and when necessary, updated. Often the situation you face in information seeking isn't a lack of resources, but rather, knowing what to prioritize in your reading, and which scholars have done most to push the research conversation forward. OBO helps you listen in. 

Examples of entries that might be useful for broad topics related to course themes: 


Four Databases for Essay 3


Databases are often necessary complements to HOLLISThese special search tools  -- organized around an academic discipline (like anthropology or literature), an area of the world (like Africa or the U.S.), or a particular information type (statistics or newspapers, for example) -- give you consistent and deep (rather than scattered) access to a body of knowledge.

You can think of library databases as premium online content -- most of it is not accessible to you freely from Google (or Google Scholar) and it's only available to you because of your association with Harvard, which pays subscription fees on your behalf. 

The contents of any library database are never random or accidental: the material you find collected and made searchable there is chosen for inclusion by experts, and designed with the needs of scholars and researchers in mind. 

Databases are like lenses: they change what you see and how you see it -- and they offer you easy and efficient ways to bring your questions into sharper focus.

  • Academic Search Premier (EBSCO platform)
    • Strategy: While multidisciplinary, like HOLLIS, ASP is smaller in size and narrower in coverage. It's a good next step, if you've searched HOLLIS and gotten too many results or results that seem diffuse and difficult to work with.


  • Criminal Justice Abstracts (EBSCO platform)

    • Strategy: zoom in on "details" that a "panoramic"  database, like HOLLIS  can obscure. 


  • Social Science Premium Collection (ProQuest platform)
    • Strategy: canvass the social sciences literature broadly; then narrow and zoom in on a specific field, angle, or methodology.


  • Homeland Security Digital Library 
    • Strategy: search across a database of Congressional, federal agency, think tank, advocacy and policy center reports and papers. Most of these don't end up published in academic journals but they still shape or influence discussion and debate. 



HOLLIS in a Nutshell




1.  Understand what it is.

HOLLIS combines the extensive contents of our library catalog, the record every item owned by every Harvard Library with those of another, large and multidisciplinary database of journal, newspaper, and magazine articles. 


When you search "everything,"  you pull results from both of these databases at the same time. For better or for worse, "everything" is our system default. 


2. Know how to work it.

Creating search strings with some of the techniques below can help you get better results up front. 




3. Take control of your results.

While the broad and panoramic approach to searching HOLLIS can be mind-opening, you can sometimes find yourself overwhelmed by either the numbers or types of results your search returns.


When that happens, try one of these easy tricks:


Limit your Everything search results set just to the items listed in the LIBRARY CATALOG.

Your numbers will immediately get smaller. Keep in mind, though, that the results will be heavily weighted toward book-length studies.


Limit your Everything search results set to items that are identified as PEER REVIEWED ARTICLES.

You'll eliminate newspaper and magazine materials as well as books, of course, but you'll also raise the visibility of scholarly journal articles in what displays. 


Think about limiting your results to publications from the last 5, 10, 15, or 20 years.

By doing so you'll get a snapshot of the most recent research trends and scholarly approaches in a field (or around a particular issue).




Your "default" approach to searching Harvard's catalog, HOLLIS, is probably similar to your Google approach: enter some words, see what comes up, then try again or improve from there. 

But BROWSING in the catalog is an under-appreciated research strategy, especially when you're trying to discover your interest. It helps you see how writing ABOUT an author, an idea, an event, etc. has been broken down and categorized. So instead of getting the typical list of titles, you see results in terms of sub-topics. Inspiration may lie there!


Open HOLLIS. Click on the  link above the search box. Then select SUBJECT. 

image of a HOLLIS search for  browse by subject: prisoner's writings, american

 What does a Browse search give you? Click on the  image above to find out! 



Browsing subject headings lists can teach you a lot about searching, because they rely on standardized language and standard ways of qualifying or further describing a give subject.


Scan and Deliver

When an article you need is available in a print journal at Harvard but not online, you can ask us to make a PDF for you through a service called Scan and Deliver.

We'll send you an email when it's ready for downloading, typically between 1 and 4 days after you place the request. Scan and Deliver is a free service to Harvard affiliates.

Scan and Deliver is also an option if you want up to two chapters of any Harvard-owned book digitized for your use.  

NOTE: Initiate Scan and Deliver requests through HOLLIS.


What should you do if a book you find in HOLLIS and want to use is:

  • checked out to someone else;
  • declared missing or lost  in the catalog record you are looking at (alas, it happens);
  • on order (that is, coming into the library collection but not yet arrived at Harvard); or
  • in process (that is, it's arrived at Harvard but some final things are being done to get it read for the "stacks," our word for the library shelves)?

In every one of these cases,  open the full item record and look for the BORROW DIRECT option toward the bottom of the screen (under the GET IT information and just before the call number). Follow the prompts from there.

We'll get a copy of the book for you, within 4 days, from another university library. 

If the item is "in process" we'll expedite the process of getting the book ready for use and you'll be quickly notified by email. 

Creating Citations for Your Expos Paper


In your time at Harvard, you'll hear more than one librarian  suggest that you use Zotero, a "citation management tool."  Zotero will be great for big projects that require you to keep track of many sources -- like junior tutorials and senior theses (if you end up writing one).  

In the meantime, we recommend you generate citations with ZoteroBib

It's more reliable than the internal HOLLIS citation generator and you don't need an account or special software to use it.  Some of its handy features are described on this page.

Next semester, or next year, you might want to graduate into using Zotero itself.  It will take the process of collecting and organizing sources and  incorporating footnotes or in-text citations to the next level. 

A good guide, if you're interested, is available here: