bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

How to Research in the Online-Only World, the final part

Posted in Academic Practices by bonaelitterae on 26 June, 2020

The previous tip was a reminder that searching is in itself not enough – as early modern governments knew, effective record-keeping is essential to success. We talked about the methods of organising those records, with special consideration of reference management systems. There are two further tips that follow on from this.

You want your searching to be as efficient as possible. That does not mean narrowing your search terms – the implication of Tip I was that a sensible strategy is repeatedly to shift between different terms. It does, though, mean not having unnecessarily to revisit items that you looked at earlier, and so Tip VIII is: keep a note of your search history.

In many cases, this will be simple if you have a fit-for-purpose record-keeping. For an article or book, the bibliographical citation and the notes you make will be sufficient, though remember this: if you were to revisit that work later, having read other material in the meantime, you would be struck by other elements in it and different nuances. In other words, your reading is specific to that moment and that context — thus, a basic rule is to ensure you include in your notes the date when you came across that work.

For websites, of course, this is a standard expectation: a citation is not complete without a mention of the date of ‘last access’. That is because of the non-static nature of those sites, always capable of being updated. It is true that an increasing amount of online material is on ‘legacy sites’, ones where the funding (or the editor’s interest) has run out, and they have, in effect, become static. With those (and this is related to a point made in Tip III) you will want to make a note of when they were last updated. You will not need to return to those, but for ‘live’ sites, you may have to revisit them as they develop. The implication of this is that the tip could be rewritten: keep a note not just of your history but of your future, of those resources which you will want to check again before you finish your project.

This may sound like a demonstration of the truth of the Old Testament verse: of making many books, there is no end (Ecclesiastes 12:12). You may feel that to be particularly true in recent months, in the lockdown and its aftermath. There will be many resources that you know are themselves locked away in libraries or archives to which you cannot gain access. Tip IX relates directly to those: do not shy away from recording the material that is, at present, not available.

You will, of course, need to make a note that you have not been able to see it (in a Word bibliography, I mark an entry with an asterisk when I am yet to consult it; in Zotero, I add a reminder in the note field). You will then wonder what to do about something you cannot see. The question you have to ask yourself — and your supervisor or mentor — is: how essential would this work be for my project? If the answer is that it is truly crucial, it may be that you will need to reframe your investigation in some way. It is true that, in the present situation, many institutions are taking into consideration the difficulties of access when marking, particularly at the undergraduate level. Yet, let us be honest, you would not have got this far in reading these tips if you would be satisfied by writing something which is ‘good enough, in the circumstances’; you want to produce a work which is as good as humanly possible. There are always constraints — the amount of time and the number of words available being constantly two of them. We are working with another, temporary one but we are not just working with it, we are also finding ways to work around it. This brings me to the final tip in this series and perhaps, in our present context, the most important one. Tip X can be summarised in one word: share.

Research is a lonely business. In the humanities, the process is, on one level, unavoidably isolating: you work away with your primary sources and secondary material, making yourself into the one expert in the world on your particular niche, gaining a depth of understanding and (hopefully) an enthusiasm that to others can be frankly perplexing. One talent any academic has to develop is how to convey that knowledge and excitement in a way that is not only clear to others but also helps them share the fascination. The methods we have to do that, through seminars, workshops and conferences, have had to be re-designed for this Covid-19-infested world. I am sure we all cannot wait to be able to engage with people in person, but we also do not want to lose what we have gained during this period. For, there have been benefits: many people — particularly students — have shown a resourcefulness and a collegiality which is impressive and deserves to be kept alive. There have been excellent initiatives from York’s ‘lockdown library’ to Canterbury’s MEMSLib. The latter brings together both some useful (and growing) pages providing listings of online resources with a forum that allows researchers to make specific requests. The site has been designed and created by a group of students — MA, PhD and post-doc — whose passion is equalled by their industry and intelligence. They are responsible for many of the listings, but they have also brought in colleagues (young and, in my case, not any longer) both from Kent’s MEMS and further afield. It has shown how a community can put aside hierarchies and work together to produce something which is of immediate but also lasting benefit. In doing this, MEMSLib and other initiatives like it have shown how we can make social distancing sociable.MEMSLib

So, I ask that you share in a double sense. First, do not suffer alone. If you cannot find a specific work or need help with a particular element of your searching, ask — ask your friends, those you know in your institution or a resource like MEMSLib. Equally, share what you have. I have heard of students offering to send their peers books in the post; I certainly have fielded queries from colleagues across the UK wanting a reference checked in a book I happen to have on my shelves. I have also been grateful for those to whom I have sent unsolicited emails asking for their articles, all of whom have responded generously. These acts make our lives as researchers somewhat easier at this time. They matter because the little kindnesses are a model of how a scholarly community should be — our own new republic of letters. They matter for us as seekers after arcane knowledge but they also matter for our humanity.

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