I spent my morning class in the library today, listening to an overview of how to use academic databases to do research. I’ve been doing that for a while, but you never know what neat new tip or trick you migth pick up, and besides, I didn’t really have a choice. Now, you, my writerly friends, might not think you have access to databases, as you are likely no longer a student, but I will point a few things out. First, if you are reading this blog, you have the whole internet at your fingertips. This can be… problematic, as most of you already know. Second, chances are that your local public library has resources avaible to you, not only in the library (novel thought – do your research in person! Make a librarian’s day!) but online, as well.
Researching online can be more than a little like trying to drink from a firehose, or swim in a riptide. I think most of us have figured out ways to narrow the stream to a manageable level, but here are some of the tips and tricks I have picked up over the years.
Look at the address before you click the link. Most web addresses end with .com, followed by .org, .edu, and many others. Keep in mind that .com or .biz addresses are often commercial concerns, and may be trying to sell you something. Approach with caution (she says, on a .com site… it’s not a hard and fast rule. Only thing I want to sell you here are my books. Look, shiny!) and keep in mind the material is likely not primary sources, but could be used to track backwards to them.
Some will tell you .org sites are fine, but honestly, I am even more cautious about them. At least with a business they will likely be up front about what they are trying to sell, and honest about their products, if they want repeat customers (trust me, as a businesswoman, the last thing you want to do is piss your clients off). Organizations labor under no such constraints.
And last for the purposes of this blog entry, .edu sites are a good resource, but still, never rely on only one source. There are tons of examples out there of professors who have made stuff up whole-cloth and been caught later. I came across Ward Churchill while researching for a class last semester. I just found out about this guy researching for this article. Academia is full of very human people, with all the failings and foibles that implies.
Which brings me to another side point. Never rely on a single source. When you are wanting to get the facts straight, make sure you have at least two, but better, three or more, primary sources that agree (mostly!). A primary source is a study, article, what have you, that is original. Look carefully, some secondary sources might lead back to the same primary, leaving you with a single source. I know, this seems obvious, but…
Going back to the concept of choking the internet into submission. If you are wanting more scholarly research sources, try putting your search through Google Scholar. This will allow you to narrow down results, and get citations readily, if you need them. For writing fiction, you won’t want or need citations, and you may not want or need to do this much research. I love research, but it is easy to fall down the rabbit-hole and into Wonderland if you don’t set limits on the searching you do. A timer, or a “no more than three sources!” might be useful limits for a fiction writer.
Finally, every library is different. Some university libraries are open to the public, so they can become a resource when you have heavy subjects that are more obscure. As I said, most public libraries have databases, and they are under-utilized. All the librarians I know would be delighted to introduce you to their resources, and usually you can tap into them from home with your library card number, as well. Many libraries offer their patrons the ability to borrow books from interconnected libraries, including, again, university and college libraries.
Now, I have to go look up stories and poems on the theme of Wanderlust, for a paper on Tennyson’s Ulysses, and I need to find a good Mayan Jaguar tale, for mapping along with other Latin American folktales. I’ll see you in the rabbit-hole…