Thursday, August 20, 2015

Notes on Research

I'm revising a paper this week in a sort of intensive way by going to a "faculty writing retreat" at our writing center.  It's great.  The director basically sets up a coffee machine, gets some pastryish snack foods, and welcomes faculty.  And we spread around that area of the library, and work for the morning until we're ready to be done. 

So there's sort of the feeling that I need to be responsible and go, because I said I would, and so I go and get a lot done.  And at the same time, it's not a real responsibility, and very relaxed, and no one's looking over your shoulder about when you leave and such. 

And, most important, no one is trying to talk at me.

So the other day, I realized that I hadn't cited a source that I'd found on line.  So over there, I signed into one of the campus computers and searched for the source.  (I needed volume 2 of the transcript of the Stationers' Register from before 1640.)  I found volume 1, and I found volumes from after 1640, but the volume I'd quoted in my essay, nope.  I must have spent half an hour trying various search strategies, until I finally gave up.

I had hope that I'd bookmarked it on my office computer browser.  Or that I'd bookmarked it on my own laptop.  And as a final thing, I could ask a librarian to help, but I wanted to check the others first.

So when I left the library that afternoon, I stopped at my office.

And I hadn't bookmarked it.

But in a sort of random gesture, I did a search using EXACTLY the same search terms I'd been using on the campus computer.  And voila, at the very top of the page was the source.

So now I've bookmarked it and also emailed myself the URL.

I think I use a different search engine in my office (DuckDuckGo) than the campus set ups do (Bing).  But you'd think that Bing would still find the source, even if it weren't on the top page, right?  But I was looking at listings on Bing that had nothing to do with the Stationers' Register, and I went through several pages.  And I tried to creatively limit my searching. 

I should go try the DuckDuckGo engine on one of the campus set ups, and see if it gets the same result.

I have to say, one of the frustrating things about using on line sources is that finding stuff feels way more hit or miss than with more traditional sources.  Maybe that's because I'm using different search engines, but back in grad school, when I'd use different libraries, I could still reliably find book listings at both (if they had the book).


  1. To make it worse, I also find that the search results change depending on how you're logged in. I suspect that's search history as well as personal preferences. I try to be careful to preserve any interesting citations I uncover but it's difficult to know what's unusual and what's easy to find, isn't it?

    Keep on writing - I have to get myself in gear again once I whip these two course outlines into shape!

  2. I was just watching a video on digital humanities, and the person argued that we need to be digital researchers because of the incredible amount of data we have now -- greater amounts than ever before. He compared the memos from the Johnson presidency to the email memos from the Clinton presidency. Johnson's memos tallied about 40 thousand; Clinton's memos tallied 40 MILLION. No one has time to read 40 million emails, right? So we have to use creative searching to find things we want.

    However, I got a little uneasy thinking about that. With so much data dumpage, wouldn't it require reading all 40 million emails to get a clear picture? Selective searching means the RESEARCHER builds the narrative, not the data, necessarily. The researcher's keyword searches and interests will be mapped onto the data and then interpreted by someone who has those interests. It feels like a way to manipulate data.

    Same thing if I only read Shakespeare and never anyone else from the Renaissance. I might be able to make an argument that the Renaissance felt X way about kingship, because Shakespeare writes X about it. But that would be ignoring the whole rest of the culture and limiting the picture to my own interests as a researcher. That feels ... I don't know... wrong? But the thing is, with something like Shakespeare, you really never could read all the scholarship on his work, so you tend to select things that are interesting to you. And even if you read broadly for a year or so, you're only getting a postage-stamp-sized picture of the whole thing. hmmm

  3. Then again - I suppose researchers are always shaping the narrative with their arguments. I just feel like there's a lot of potential to miss something when you're focusing only on keyword searches and never walking through the library stacks to browse. Know what I mean? I find a lot of good sources by looking at the books surrounding the original book I found in a keyword search.

  4. Fie--selective searching alone isn't sufficient, you're right. But most people who do digital humanities don't limit themselves to that. You take those 40 million memos, and you do data visualization or do other statistical analysis first, and then go and do the selective searching to focus in on things that pop to the surface in that data analysis. And they do exactly the same thing that you're talking about with looking at the books--if a particular memo shows up as important in that search, they look at what other memos were sent on the topic, what other memos were sent to the same sets of people, what other memos were sent around the same time.

    And finding things just by browsing the shelf is also shaped by other people and their sense of narratives--the librarians who purchased the books and what they thought was important, the people who decided which LC designation a book fit into, etc. The shelf doesn't represent more or less of an constructed reality than a digital search.

  5. Oh, I hear you. And on those things, I usually go right to Hathi Trust, and even then I'll get volumes 1, 3, 4 and 6, but not 2 and 5. Grrr.

    1. Hathi Trust for the win! And I found volume 2! (at least, I think it's 2). I can email you a link if you'd like.

  6. well, I'm not actually looking for the Stationers register, but it happens with the Calendar of State Papers, the Lords Journals, etc.... Very common.