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 3×5 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!