Thursday, 4 October 2012

How to Find Everything

Introductory remarks to students at the Postgraduate Advanced Training Session conducted at the Carmelite Library in conjunction with the Franciscan Conference held in Melbourne, Australia in November 2009. Some text is updated to reflect new developments.

Philip Harvey

A prerequisite piece of information useful to a new researcher is that libraries are where the fun is. The fun is in the libraries and I cannot emphasise enough to you how you should be making yourself familiar with every library that could possibly serve your research needs. Now when I say that, I don’t mean just simply joining the library of your university or history school or theology school. I mean, you become actively aware of all the available libraries, archives, and other places that could possibly have material in your subject. This includes state libraries, public libraries, special subject libraries, archives. The Carmelite Library, for example, is a theology library specialising in spirituality, but this means it has a special interest in medieval history, monasticism, the religious orders and in the different spiritual traditions of Christianity.  It makes sense, likewise, that where medieval and early modern religion and spirituality are being taught in a university faculty, that university library will have specialised literature. We like to believe that such libraries are keeping up with the expectations of their teachers and students.

I wish to state a general assumption that is an unstated expectation of the researcher: the researcher knows everything about their subject, if not now then by the end of their thesis work. The question is, where are you going to find everything?

Actually, the first person you need is yourself. It is not often said in reference research seminars that the knowledge you start with initially, and your desire to increase and deepen that understanding, are critical foundations for the success of your research. Interests and assumptions pre-exist inside the researcher, there to be built on, tested, changed and even, sometimes, changed utterly. You need to believe in the subject, you even need to love your thesis as s subject of passionate interest.

The second person who helps you on your way to knowing everything is your supervisor. They ought to be supplying you with the essential reading in the subject, bibliographies and other sources, as well as setting out a methodology. If supply is meagre, then guidance about where to get supply is a requirement. The supervisor is there to support and direct, they deserve respect and must be listened to. It is important to remember that where you are going, they have been before. Read everything they advise you to read, learn how to find the essential literature. Supervisors can vary in their methods. One may tell you to write down everything you know before you start the reading, as you can then update your thesis while proceeding. Another may tell you to read everything first before you put pen to paper, or keystroke to screen. Whatever, a productive relationship with your supervisor will necessarily mean following a sensible methodology, discussing how the work is being constructed, how to manage the breakthroughs as well as the blockages. However I have something scandalous to say about supervisors: they don’t know everything. Their task is to help you to find everything on your subject. A good supervisor helps you to find the confidence and wherewithal to move into unknown places – to know how to read, work with, and interpret materials that are new, challenging, different, strange. Indeed, if the subject has a life then new findings and new directions are going to be part of the game.

Other people in your work may be living authorities on the subject, experts in some area of the subject, those whose personal knowledge is invaluable, as for example those you engage in oral history or interviews. They may even, good luck, be the subject.

One of the main people you rely on is the librarian. Libraries and archives are the closest you are going to get to everything, not least if they have internet access. Libraries are the instruments of the systematic organisation of knowledge, which puts them at the advantage of the internet, which is not systematic or well-organised. You, the researcher, should become adept at using the catalogue. Effective results are not achieved by simply using keyword searches: if you are only using keyword searches on catalogues in the way you search Google, then you are not finding all the books, journals, and other materials of relevance in the library. You need to acquaint yourself in particular with subject searching, which displays records in systematic order. When searching any library catalogue you ought not to be satisfied until you have exhausted every possibility and uncovered every source that can contribute to your idea of everything. If you cannot find what you want or the catalogue seems obstinate to rational discourse, then ask a librarian for assistance. Humans can prove much more agreeable than machines. The beauty of the online catalogue is that comprehensive searching of a library’s holdings can be done at home, or other ideal location, though there is greatest benefit still in being in the place where all the material is close to hand.

Now, before I go any further, I am going to tell you what you should do when starting out on your research. You read a recent book on research for all the things you need to know: current practice, methodologies, resources. Your supervisor or research institute or school may also have their own guidelines, standards, and similar publications. Awareness of style is crucial, best known about before rather than after. You should become aware of any software that assists with layout, bibliography, and so forth.

You ask the librarian for fundamental and basic books in your subject, appropriate periodicals and reference works. You should consult about how to use electronic and online indexes and other resources, available in your library, either free or by subscription. You should consult about secondary works, including new titles. This is where cultivating a working relationship with your librarian can be an advantage. After all, not only does a good librarian know where everything is in the collection, they are also ordering the books, which means they see the trade catalogues first and can identify anything new just coming out in your area. Librarians are trained up to make the connections between student needs and all the possible resources.

There is one warning about such a working relationship though: the librarian is not there to write your thesis for you. Their job is to guide you in the directions you need to go. It is you who make the discoveries. And what are the ways to discovery?

You need to become greedy for bibliographies. Many of the best lists of resources are in the backs of books, ends of chapters, in footnotes and indexes. Older books will contain lists of books and articles not always found in new books or online, so you read all the bibliographies for everything. Then you have to consider this statistic: the extent of human knowledge doubles every six years. Actually, I don’t know how you can prove that, but even as a gauge this statistic tells us that our thesis searching will never end and that we have to be on the lookout at all stages of the process. Even within the special subject of your study it may have more than doubled in six years, but do you know that?

Not only are the obvious books going to contain material relevant to your research, so are the not obvious ones. This means taking a tour of the library and seeing everything in all sections. Reference, for example, is a section of any library of which a researcher should have quite a knowledge. Library awareness means studying the books on your subject found on the shelf, but also studying the books along the same shelf as those books, and in that vicinity. General texts and specific texts on the subject will come to light that you didn’t know existed and that were not noticed on the catalogue. Serendipity is an easy art, and beneficial at any time. You need to be aware of the forces that mitigate against serendipity, the most recent one in libraries being off-site storage. Call number searches on the catalogue in and around your main texts are one way of finding the unexpected treasure off-site but, short of researchers having their own access to off-site storage, or stacks, librarians must live with massive requests of titles that, when delivered, may or may not be the hidden wonders of our desire.

You need to know that if you cannot obtain the book or article in your own library, you can get it by inter-library loan, or as some have it, document delivery. There are various modes of inter-library loan which take too long to explain here. The important thing is to confirm that your library does inter-library loan, to know the cost of the transaction (if any), and the turnaround time.

The comfort with which we agree to the internet is in equal relation to the comfort of the chair we sit in while on the internet. Librarians and academic institutions have too often been complicit in privileging the comfy chair. Here are some uncomfortable things to make you sit up and think. First is the shocking true fact that the world wide web does not hold everything and never will. Not only that, what it holds today say in your specialist subject may disappear tomorrow – and where are you then? You are left with a web citation that your examiner cannot see and you cannot prove, something that could never happen with a book or article. The internet is a huge reference service, but its authority control is incomplete and much of the time does not provide the comprehensiveness that it seems to promise. It is no longer even free to all, or equitable, if for example we consider how access to some periodicals online is only possible today if you or your library pays the right annual amount to the database provider.

That said, the internet is also one of your best friends. It can provide the snapshot in short time, whether a sweeping vista or a picturesque dead end street, of work in your subject area.

You also need to become greedy for library catalogues. National and State Library catalogues should be main ports of call, bookmarked. In Australia we have the National Library of Australia’s database (these days called Trove, but watch out for name changes, usually every seven years on average). While it now gives access to nearly everything in the Library, one of its claims is to give extensive library holdings for individual records. However, you will be mistaken if you think the national database is the final word on the book you are looking for. When the internet opened up the possibility of downloading catalogue records from anywhere in the world, many university libraries stopped using the national database or placing their holdings there. Thus, your book could be held in the local university library or elsewhere but not on the national database, which means it pays to visit individual catalogues. Only last week, for example, I catalogued an important and not rare book in the Carmelite Library that is the only copy in an Australian library. Not for the first time, either. This book still has an interim record on the national database in Canberra, with the statement that no library in Australia holds this title. The record is still waiting to be described by a library that contributes to the national database.

You want to become good friends also with union catalogues both in paper and online; with periodical indexes and union lists of periodicals; with digital thesis programs, especially in your own subject area; with subject websites including those of associations, individual writers and academics; with portals to groups of catalogues; with library association sites that list libraries in your area; with global catalogues; with international societies and their specialised print and online products; and with the scholarly mechanisms that make online searching easier and more effective. You will not make friends with all these just by your own efforts. You need introductions, and the people best placed to make the introductions are your supervisor and the librarians. Everything is that much closer to realisation. A wise researcher knows at the end of their work that they now know everything in their subject, almost.

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