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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 2021 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


Exploring for Contexts, Backgrounds, and Authorities


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: 


Primary Sources and Advocacy Organizations



Three 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.



  • 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: A Key Research Resource




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).






Despite the fact that our physical items are unavailable and buildings are shuttered, HOLLIS can and should continue to be a key research resource, wherever students are.  That's in part because of the sheer size and enormous variety of what it contains, but also because the content students can surface there is substantial.  

Here are some ways to think through your digital options in HOLLIS

1. Scan & Deliver

This service, free to Harvard students even before the pandemic, can be a lifesaver when you find something in the catalog that's essential -- but only available in print.

Scan & Deliver allows you to request a PDF of an article, a portion of a book (and now, a portion of a special collection, under some circumstances). Just remember that the library staff  responsible for this service are returning to campus slowly, so the response time (usually within 4 days) may be delayed.

NOTE: Initiate Scan and Deliver requests through HOLLIS.

2. Hathi Trust Temporary Emergency Access Library 

IHathiTrust has a digitized copy, you'll be able to check it out, reserves-style. Presently, loans are given for 1 hour, automatically renewable if there's no waiting list for the item you're using.

Hathi Trust materials can't be downloaded or printed out (when they're in copyrright), but the upside is that you'll have excellent access to our collection in print, even when you can't use the print. 

Normally, your access to HathiTrust items is seamless via Harvard; when you see the record details, click on the   link to initiate check out.

NOTE: If you go directly into HathiTrust through the link above, be sure you click on the button, top right  and choose Harvard University.

3. Internet Archive Open Library

For books not available online via a HOLLIS link or through HathiTrust, the Open Library may be a good next step. You'll need to create a free account to "check out" books (temporarily, for up to 2 weeks).  

4. Lamont Front Door Pickup (if you're in / near Cambridge)

Materials that are available for checkout are requested online via HOLLIS; they are paged for you by library staff. When they are ready, you receive an email directing you to schedule a pick up time (15-minutes windows, as available)


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.

Statistical Sources


Bureau of Justice Statistics  (US Gov)



LIBRARY EXPERT: Diane Sredl, Data Librarian, Lamont Library