It’s a little stale now but I wanted to squeeze in an appreciative shout out to Tim Burke at Easily Distracted for his post “Anatomy of a Search.”
If there’s anything that I think needs to be learned through experience or through directly witnessing the experience of others, it’s online information-seeking. I don’t think you can give a useful general description of how to search that a student can usefully refer back to while doing their own research. When I teach research methods in the classroom, I often concentrate on doing real-time, live searches based on suggested topics from the class while narrating some of the ideas and choices I’m thinking about as I go from one resource to the next.
And then he goes through one in detail, looking for information on his great-grandfather-in-law, a Cretan war hero. It’s a fascinating process for those of us who like to find stuff out. Go read it, you won’t be sorry. His conclusions:
1) Serendipidity counts. If I started this search from the wrong place, I’d have gotten nowhere. It all starts with the museum in Zoniana.
2) Multiple iterations of the same search with different keywords turn up notably different results, each of which iterates further into separate branches of information. Harvesting keywords in each generation or branch of a search is the key art of searching.
3) Knowing when to stop travelling down one branching series of searches to come back to the central “spine” of inquiry is crucial.
4) Knowing when you’ve hit a point of diminishing returns within digital environments, at which point you need to go read authoritative scholarship, make personal contacts, or have direct experiences, is critical to success.
5) You have to know a few things already, or at least be able to make educated guesses. I got as far as I did because I know something about the effect of immigration on the spelling of names, because I could hack out a rough reading of a French document, because I know a bit about conflicts in the Balkans and the end of the Ottoman Empire, and so on.
What’s buried in these absolutely spot-on heuristics is a general cultural foundation and competence (habitus) that provides the ‘elementary’ interpretive screens that take the research problem from a paralyzing everything to a manageable something. “You have to know a few things already.” This is where so many of our students get stopped before they even start, although probably few of Tim’s at Swarthmore. What can we tell the ones who don’t even know where to begin? They just have to read more, listen more, learn more — a lot more so that their guesses may become educated ones; but that’s no quick solution.
UPDATE: While I’m at linking terrific Tim Burke research how-to posts, here’s one he did awhile back on finding primary sources.