bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

How to Research in the Online-only World, Part III

Posted in Academic Practices by bonaelitterae on 22 May, 2020

In the previous posts, we have discussed the most basic tools for searching, Google and Wikipedia. In this instalment, we move beyond them and look at some resources which are more specific to those of us who are medievalists or early modernists, though the lessons we will draw still have wider relevance. Tip III is a very simple one: use bibliographies and portals.

The term ‘bibliography’ is used by academics with two separate meanings. It can signify the noble scholarly tradition of describing the material book but it can mean the useful practice of listing publications on a topic. It is works in that second category that we are going to discuss here. Works of this kind became a common resource in the print world of scholarship, and some witnesses to that can be partially viewed online: to give just one example, Google Books has The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, with its first volume, edited by George Watson and covering a millennium from 600 to 1600, published in 1974 (‘New’ because it superseded a previous version, published in 1940). Books like this were, of course, becoming obsolete from the moment of publication, becoming more out-of-date with each passing winter. In some areas of study, they could be supplemented by annual reviews: for instance, The Year’s Work in English Studies, first published in 1921, or the English Historical Review’s summary of periodical articles which appeared in the previous year. These continue to be produced and are very useful (and sometimes mischievously entertaining). In the hard-copy world, however, if you want to check what has been written on your topic over a set of years, you would need to take a set of them off the shelves and check through them methodically. This is to say that such bibliographical ventures were created waiting for the internet to happen.

The online world was made for searching, though as we are about to see, you must develop a range of tactics and techniques to make the most of the bibliographies and portals that are available. Here is a very short list of useful resources for medievalists and early modernists:

Bibliographies of published works:

  • Oxford Bibliographies — this resource covers many fields, but it is mainly two that are relevant: ‘medieval studies’ (but that does not include ‘medieval manuscripts’, which are in ‘art’) and ‘Renaissance and Reformation’). This is a commercial resource but some of the entries are freely available
  • Regesta Imperii — the most expansive free bibliography of the Middle Ages
  • Brepolis – so-called after the Low Countries publisher, Brepols, this includes a suite of databases, the most relevant: the International Medieval Bibliography (IMB), the Bibliography of British and Irish History and the Bibliography of Humanism and the Renaissanc

Portals listing relevant websites:

  • The Labyrinth — a collection of online resources for medieval studies, compiled by Georgetown University
  • Early Modern Web – run by the scholar of early modern crime, Sharon Howard. This includes Early Modern Commons, a listing of relevant blogs (with a search function but one, note, that searches by tag, not by full text of the blogposts themselves)

Let us compare the bibliographies just cited by setting them a task. The person I have chosen for this exercise is one of the leading humanists of the earlier fifteenth century, Guarino da Verona.

Medal of Guarino da Verona

Guarino da Verona (1373-1460) as depicted in a medal from the early 1440s by Matteo de’ Pasti

He receives a short discussion in the Oxford Bibliographies, which concentrates on the classic studies of his life. A different approach is taken by IMB and the Regesta which both focussed on recent publications. If you type ‘Guarino da Verona’ into IMB, the search returns 12 results (gratifyingly including an article of mine); in the Regesta, there are 13 entries for him, but not including my piece (shame!) and, in fact, with only one work overlapping between the two lists. These numbers seem rather low for a figure of Guarino’s stature and, indeed, if you change the search term to the version of his name more often used in present-day Italy, ‘Guarino Veronese’, you are landed with many more hits: IMB gives 102 results (including the 12 mentioned) and Regesta 59 (not overlapping with the 13 previously mentioned), with only seven items appearing in both. If we return to Wikipedia, the English article on Guarino includes no citation of scholarly significance, but the Italian one adds a few articles, none of which appears in either of these databases.

So, what lessons can we draw from this example? I want to highlight five points:

  1. You cannot rely on one single bibliography — as this test-case shows, neither Regesta or IMB can claim to be comprehensive. It is important both to cross-check between them and to be aware that there will still be more items to find. To put this another way, a search strategy that relies on a single resource does not deserve the name of a strategy. We always have to learn to move between several sources of information, with the ones we employ changing according the specific topic we want to investigate.
  2. Understand any database’s limitations, both intended and incidental — you might be wondering why no bibliography is entirely complete: that is a good question and one you should always ask yourself. Before you begin using a resource, you should read what it says about itself to understand its self-imposed limits. Then, as you use it, you will develop a sense of its strengths and its weaknesses. There is a fundamental principle at work: behind every screen sits a human being or, in the case of major projects like IMB and Regesta, a whole host of other humans. They rely on contributors, some of whom will be more efficient than others. The resources also develop within particular academic traditions: IMB is led by Anglophone scholars and, through its Brepolis sister, the Bibliographie de Civilisation Médiévale, links to a French équipe; Regesta Imperii has an English search function but is designed by German-speaking academics. The regional focus of each is one partial explanation for their differing coverage, though another important one is simply that they look in different places.
  3. The further back an online bibliography goes the less reliable it is — one limitation both the databases discussed share, and one which is common in digital resources, is that, in their concentration on more recent publications, they are less full for the older literature, even when that remains foundational. For my chosen topic, the most important studies continue to be those written at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries by Remigio Sabbadini: Regesta does list some but not all of them, while IMB has none (the earliest entry is from 1965). These older works are, of course, easily discovered by reading more recent discussions, including standard biographies (in this case, the best being that in the Dictionary of Italian Biography, DBI). Once more, though, the moral is: use many resources in concert together.
  4. Check the date of compilation — at the other end of the chronological spectrum, there is always going to be a cut-off point for inclusion. If you look at any Oxford Bibliography, it gives at the top the date of latest revision; anything published since then will not be included. The main databases do not state the date for the latest uploads as they aim to be up-to-the-minute but do not be fooled: there is always a lead-in time and they are not the place to find the very latest word on a subject (we will discuss that in the next couple of tips).
  5. Use variant search terms — this example also gives us an opportunity to reinforce one of the very first pieces of advice given. Do not confine yourself to a single version of the name or term you want to investigate; you will miss relevant results if you do not think of different permutations, so use them too.

Of course, the advice here does tend to require us to include in our research bibliographies which sit behind a paywall. You might understandably wonder how that is possible if your institution does not subscribe. I will return to this in the last tip but, for now, let us reassure ourselves: if you are connected to a centre like Kent’s MEMS, you are part of a supportive community; ask us, and we will do all we can to help.