5c- Impact of Technology on Conducting Research of Secondary Sources

Though many of you are too young to have expe­ri­enced a shift in the way library research is con­duct­ed, it is impor­tant to note the extent to which technology—specifically the computer—has affect­ed sec­ondary research.  Even as recent­ly as fif­teen years ago, most libraries orga­nized and kept record of their vol­umes using a card cat­a­log.  Each source was typed out on a 3x5 index card and placed in long nar­row draw­ers.  These cards were orga­nized in a few dif­fer­ent ways: by author’s last name, by sub­ject, by Dewey Dec­i­mal num­ber.  This meant that any one source might appear in three dif­fer­ent places in the cat­a­log.

Liv­ing in the com­put­er age, you imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nize the ben­e­fit of tech­nol­o­gy in more effi­cient­ly orga­nized media col­lec­tions: 1) there is no need for all the phys­i­cal space required to store the card cat­a­logue; 2) a data base allows for auto­mat­ic cross-ref­er­enc­ing and elim­i­nates the “need” for mul­ti­ple entries of any one source; 3) mul­ti­ple-users can access any part of the data­base simul­ta­ne­ous­ly; 4) data base shar­ing dra­mat­i­cal­ly increas­es the num­ber of sources to which one has access.  Over­all, it may seem that tech­nol­o­gy has made sec­ondary research eas­i­er, and there­fore bet­ter than it used to be.

Com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy has cer­tain­ly made library/archival research quick­er and eas­i­er, but be care­ful before assum­ing that this shift in means of organization—from ana­logue to digital—means that there is noth­ing you can learn from the past.  When you use a com­put­er in order to search for sources, the search you con­duct is only as good as the key words or ideas you enter into the search box­es.  That is, if you have a dif­fi­cult time find­ing use­ful sources, you will get no help from the com­put­er in recon­sid­er­ing your key words.  That kind of help, how­ev­er, may present itself in the form of old ways.

If you are hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time find­ing sources and iden­ti­fy­ing key words using a com­put­er data­base or online cat­a­logue, return to some of the meth­ods of cre­ative research asso­ci­at­ed with “pre-dig­i­tal” research:

  • Rub­ber­neck­ing: If all you can find is one or two sources, quit look­ing online for the moment and go direct­ly to the library.  Take the call num­bers any of the book sources you did find and use them as a guide to the shelves to start your search. For exam­ple, if you notice that you have found a few 302.75 call num­bers in your dig­i­tal search, find that shelf in your library. As soon as you iden­ti­fy a source, or bet­ter yet a pat­tern, regard­ing where relat­ed sources may be shelved, go there. Take the time to “rub­ber­neck” around in the shelves, look­ing at titles, Tables of Con­tents, and bib­li­ogra­phies. Be open to inspi­ra­tion and to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of find­ing some­thing you didn’t even know you were look­ing for.
  • Bib­li­og­ra­phy plun­der­ing:  If you have the expe­ri­ence of find­ing one “real­ly good” source, look to that source for more answers.  Plun­der the Bib­li­og­ra­phy or Works Cit­ed pages of that vol­ume and go and get the sources that author uses in order to make his/her argu­ment.  Of course it is best to skim the source you have, to read enough of it in order to iden­ti­fy some of the more rel­e­vant cita­tions of that author before ran­dom­ly choos­ing alter­nate authors from the Bib­li­og­ra­phy.  You may want to read through some of the pro­fes­sion­al ethno­graph­ic writ­ing includ­ed in Chap­ter 16 and begin some of your plun­der­ing – for sources, for key words, etc.– there. Some­times it is dif­fi­cult for some stu­dents to under­stand that Bib­li­og­ra­phy plun­der is not cheat­ing.  It is a strat­e­gy for trac­ing the log­ic of an aca­d­e­m­ic argu­ment.  You find a rel­e­vant work and then that work makes clear to you the works the author found rel­e­vant, etc.  This is the process of knowl­edge build­ing that researchers par­tic­i­pate in.

For best results, com­bine the two hints above with a dig­i­tal research process.  Tech­nol­o­gy pro­vides you with speed and access, but it can­not do the think­ing for you.  The phys­i­cal act of going to shelves, of look­ing through books, inspires thought, helps you to look for con­nec­tions between and among ideas.  The col­lec­tion of sec­ondary sources should be thought of as an active pur­suit.  This isn’t some­thing you can count on accom­plish­ing in the time and space of a sin­gle class, or on your lunch hour.  You will need a lot of time and a decent amount of ener­gy in order to find sources worth review­ing.  How­ev­er, if you engage in cre­ative sec­ondary research for your project, you will achieve a cer­tain lev­el of com­fort with library research.  And, who knows, you may even come to find the whole process enjoy­able!