5a- Searching for Sources: Keywords, Databases, Catalogs, and Shelves

In most all libraries today, initial research is conducted at a computer terminal.  We advise that you make an appointment with the reference librarians at your library.  The librarians will be more than happy to illustrate to you some of the best ways to conduct research using the online system specific to your college or university.

But before going to the library and meeting with librarians, it is a good idea for you to be prepared by learning how to identify relevant key words for a database search.  Because of the personal and local nature of your research projects, there will be very few sources that automatically match your research focus or site.  You will have to think creatively about which key words you may use in order to gather sources that may, in some way, help you think about your research.

Up to this point, it is most likely that any library research you conducted was pretty straightforward.  You took the “topic” in question, typed it in the appropriate box, hit return, and found any number of sources.  Key word topics such as abortion, gun control, euthanasia, and cancer research may yield hundreds of hits.  However, if you were to type dog park, Polish dance troupe, party store, smoking lounge, or drag king show, it is doubtful your search would reveal any academic sources whatsoever.  At best, you will discover a list of articles from popular sources such as magazines and newspapers, coffee table books and informational guides.  Understand that there is actually nothing wrong with gathering and reading these sources.  Often, they can tell us a great deal about popular beliefs.  But, as such, they are understood as primary or popular, not secondary or refereed, research sources.  They reflect current, popular understanding of a topic, not academic consideration of a research site.  In this chapter we are focusing on academic perspectives as they will be required in order to compose your final ethnographic essay/project.

Because there will most likely not be any sources that specifically discuss your research site, when thinking about your own research project you need to move from the specifics of the site to more general relationships between your research and other academic ideas.  You need to think about what happens in your site, who spends time in your site and why they may do so in order to produce a list of alternate key words.

It is not unusual to choose obscure, or less-well-researched sites. When this is the case, you must consider some of the larger ideas that may inform the creation of the sites, and to think about ways of categorizing the action that occurs in the specific site.  You need to “get creative” about how you might think about your site and what kinds of academic conversations might help you with your analysis. Below you’ll find a list of questions you may ask that will provide key terms for creative research:

  • What elements are most obvious in this place/site?
  • What sort of culture is visible here?
  • Who interacts with whom and where does the interaction take place?
  • What’s the larger context for the creation/identification of this space/site?
  • What is the purpose of this place?
  • How does this place affect individual identity?

Take a look at two lists produced by answering the questions listed above when thinking about two fairly obscure (academically speaking) research sites: dog park and smoking lounge.  Were you to type in the words dog, park, smoking, or lounge chances are you would be presented with a long list of sources, most of which we would classify as informational.  These sources may assist with some basic background information, but they will probably do little to help you think about what happens in each site, why people behave as they do and what all that may mean with respect to culture. When you think about the questions above, different options for research present themselves:

Dog Park
Pets and exercise
Pet culture
Strangers interact outside
Owners relate with each other
City/urban space
Come to give dogs a place to play
Identity as pet owners

Smoking Lounge
Tobacco and relaxation
Smoker culture
Strangers interact inside
Smokers relate with each other
Space created following legislation
Come to give selves a place to smoke
Identity as smokers

Pay particular attention to the parallelisms that can be created between these lists.  Note that despite the fact that these are very different places, each one has a culture, each one involved interaction regarding insiders and outsiders, each one connects with and reflects a particular use of space, each one has a purpose and each one helps to affect and effect identity.  This list is by no means inclusive regarding all the possible directions for research.  The list is a starting point for considering how to think “outside the box” to find academic sources, to identify an academic conversation in secondary sources to which you can connect your own primary research and data collection.  Is it a larger connection to identity?  To space?  To power?  The decision is yours.  There is no wrong answer, but it’s also true that some directions are more fruitful than others.  How to know where to focus your attention?  Start with the list and then take the words and ideas listed here and translate them from your understanding of how to answer these questions to the format of a web-based catalogue search.

Examine more specifically the phrases listed with respect to Dog Park.  The word culture is always an advisable place to begin when conducting secondary ethnographic research.  Use a Boolean search on your web/computer library data base and type the words: pet and culture.  As a reference librarian would tell you, the use of the conjunction “and” means the computer will search for entries using both the words pet and culture.  You can use this combination of your key words and culture in a variety of ways. In the Dog Park example, you could continue with urban space and culture, identity and pets and culture, stranger interaction and culture and others.

Other great words to use may be any of the words used in the titles of chapters 10-13 place, space, reflexivity, identity, ritual, symbol, authorship, and representation.  In addition, try combinations with the terms: community, communication, interaction, gender, race, urban, rural, subaltern, subculture, work, play, recreation, social, writing and ethnography for your consideration.

In database search forms, there are typically ways to narrow your search, fore example by date, by journal, by field, etc. If you look closely, you should also be able to select a function that only seeks “refereed” or “peer-reviewed” pieces. These are the articles and books that contain both lists of keywords and of references that may help you in your search. As you locate key words and academic texts you think will be of help, it is always a good idea identify the other key words and terms under which your sources have been listed.  When you pull up the full database record for the source you will typically see a list of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), which identifies the controlled vocabulary used by the Library of Congress to identify the types of subjects in which your source is categorized. This list is invaluable because it provides additional key words and subject headings for your own search. If you find a source that seems particularly relevant to your research, note the LCSH secret code words as well as any list of references or citations for that source and use them to continue your search. For example, in having identified a source as academic (by virtue of the publisher and title and actually going to retrieve the source to verify it), and given an understanding of how library cataloging is organized, you know that searches under city/urban space and/or culture would also yield multiple academic sources, as would strangers and cultural interaction.

It is important to remember that your goal in conducting this research is not only to locate a stack of sources, but also to become familiar with the words and terms that are used to organize and classify academic sources.  It is most likely that the terms and words you learn from these bibliographic entries are not a part of your own daily lexicon.  As you conduct research, you need to work to translate the words and ideas you have regarding your research project into more academic discourse.  This will not only make the research process easier for you, but also avail you to a vocabulary and a way of thinking and writing about your topic that will place your ideas within an academic conversation.