Thursday, May 14, 2009

Research In the Age of the Internet

In my previous post, I talked about what library research was like before the age of the Internet. Things are different now. You can search for sources of all kinds from computers. You no longer rely on how others organize information (pre-defined subject categories, for example), since "keyword" searches are now possible, plus full-text searches. And many of the materials you use can be accessed directly from the computer: many journal articles, for example. Interlibrary loan requests can be made directly from the computer, too. More and more, historical sources are being scanned and made more widely available through web-based digital collections, as well.

I have to confess that I do appreciate how interlinked computers have made some dimensions of research easier. But I still do use books in my library too. I appreciate the opportunity to get up and stroll among the stacks. I like scanning the books on the shelf and finding related books that I might not have otherwise learned about. I like reading journal articles from bound volumes, and then skimming the rest of the bound volume to see what other articles that journal published. While I'm there, I scan recent issues of other journals I like as well.

I don't use notecards anymore, and I feel some nostalgic regret about this. Instead I use "OneNote," a Microsoft product that lets you organize information very flexibly. I do really enjoy this system as well. It's the electronic equivalent to notecards -- or, at least, I use it like that. Well, kind of. I don't separate out topics on separate cards (or "pages") since searching helps me to compile information on a single topic from many sources. But I do set up separate pages for notes from each source. And at the top of each, I write out the full bibliographic information and "tag" it with "biblio" so that I can collect all of my bibliographical information on one page.

(Recently I discovered Zotero. This is a web-based bibliographical database. While I am searching for sources, I can instantly copy the bibliographical information into Zotero and organize it in multiple ways. I can then collect the relevant sources and produce bibliographies from them when it comes time to produce my bibliography. Now I'm trying to figure out how better to integrate this with my use of OneNote.)

What amazes me the most about OneNote is the ability to capture pieces of electronic sources and copy them directly into your "notebook." You can also cross-reference your own notes using hyperlinks. So I can, for example, copy the digital image of a facsimile page of a historical source, paste it onto a page of my OneNote notebook (and OneNote automatically adds a "citation" to the original source), and then mark that image or type notes along the side. None of this damages the original. And, these digital images themselves become searchable!

So computers and the Internet not only provide access to a lot of sources much more easily, but also offer new possibilities for keeping information organized.

But there are new challenges as well. There is so much information out there, that it can be difficult to find exactly what you wish to find. And there is so much storage space on our own computers that it can be hard to keep our information well-organized, because we think it will be easy to find anything and so we might not always organize it as well as we should. In practice, I am surprised at how hard it can be to find a particular document I know I have through searching. If I have my documents well-organized, it's much easier to find it by navigating through my electronic filing system than by searching.

And I miss the special pleasure of reading through notecards by hand, and arranging them on my desk or even on the floor. Sometimes when I get stuck, I do print things out, cut them apart with scissors, and return to the process of using physical space to re-arrange my thoughts.

But, all in all, I am really glad to have lived in a timespan when I could experience this change in how library research is done. I have been able to experience the advantages of each new development while retaining the wisdom of older ways.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Research Before the Age of the Internet

Research has really changed since I first learned research skills in middle school. I still remember being impressed at the systematic orderliness of the notecard technique. One color of cards was for our sources. They were each given a unique code. White cards were for taking notes on sources, and were cross-referenced to the relevant sources. Each card (or set of cards) was supposed to contain notes on only one topic from one source. You could then arrange the cards, grouping together those on a shared topic but from different sources. You would lay out your paper visually by arranging the note cards on your desk. Then you would write out your text by hand, integrating your research into a (hopefully) coherent narrative. In the end, you would type it all up on a manual typewriter. The end result was very satisfying.

The research phase itself involved finding sources, which meant going to the library, leafing through the card catalog (not always easy, especially when the cards were too tightly placed), and writing down call numbers on scraps of papers. You could look up sources by author, title, or subject. Subject-headings were pre-defined. There were huge volumes you could browse through that described the Library of Congress subject headings. Serious research required examining these to be sure you were not overlooking important possibilities in your research.

For journal articles, we would go to the bound periodical indexes. I remember marveling at the thought that somewhere there was a team of people reading through all periodicals and extracting information and putting it in alphabetical order and publishing these periodical indexes. They probably used notecards.

We'd go to the library shelves and pull the books or journals off the shelves to read them and take notes. Cutting-edge technology was "microfilm." But we quaked in dread when we saw that that was the only way to find a given source. While there were several machines for reading microfilm, it seemed that there was only ever one that actually worked. Yet its ways were mysterious. We always needed to ask for help to get it to work. The print was often hard to read, and the mechanics of reading and taking notes was often awkward -- the huge machines took up a lot of space, which left little room for easy note-taking.

Sometimes the library did not have a given source. But there was Interlibrary Loan. Using it involved going to the front desk to get complicated request forms that we had to fill out in detail by hand. Then we had to wait a long time for the source to arrive. And then we would only have it for a few days, unless it was a photocopied journal article. We would get to keep those, and that was nice, because the bound periodicals are bound so tightly that they are often hard to read. For that matter, the copies from Interlibrary Loan were often copied badly -- the middle section black because the tight binding of the journal made it too hard to flatten enough to photocopy clearly. Or a page would be missing. Or one inch of the text would be cut off.

And our teachers back then had no tolerance for delays, or for typographical errors, or bad grammar. Their response was always the same: "You should have given yourself more time, to ensure that you could take care of all of this by the deadline." And we knew they were right about this. It didn't occur to us to complain about how hard and complicated all of this was. That was simply a given. The task was to meet those challenges.

Now everything is different. (Stay tuned for the next installment: "Research In the Age of the Internet.")

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

End of Semester Updates

I got my grades in (a little early this time!) and now am feeling the usual post-grading anxiety. Will some students be disappointed in their grades? Will they complain? Will administrators think my grades are too high?

Just as it is impossible to drive the "right" speed (because there is no speed that is fast enough for the traffic that doesn't exceed the legal speed limit), so too is it impossible to have the "right" grade distribution ("too high" according to administrators is still "too low" for the students and their parents).

I must just sigh and resign myself to disappointment on all sides.

But I am relieved that I actually did make it all the way through the semester! I had feared that the level of busyness was approaching burnout level again, but the busyness fell just short of that danger.

And I received unexpected good news that I may not have to continue as department chair next year after all! It is amazing to me how things can be unrelenting for a long time, and then suddenly and inexplicably reverse.

But the community contra dance band I was in no longer exists. We were doing fine for a few months. But our over-committed leader decided this was too much for her. I think she hoped one of us would take over. That may yet happen. I'm a little disappointed, but mostly relieved. I would prefer to participate in a seisiún (if only someone would start a regular one in our area), or be part of a serious and committed group of musicians who play at my level and enjoy switching back and forth between early music and Celtic traditional music.

Meanwhile, I'm really glad to have arrived at the start of summer break! I now have a carrel to myself in the library, and look forward to working full-time on my research and writing!