bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

How to Research in the Online-Only World: ten personal tips, Part I

Posted in Academic Practices by bonaelitterae on 18 May, 2020

This lockdown is a child of the IT revolution in which we are living: the way we are Skyping and Zooming and Teams-ing through it would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, even perhaps ten. At the start of this century, though the internet search engine was a known phenomenon, Google had not yet been launched. Now, when we are stuck indoors, it is our doorway to the world. We are all living through our computer screens.

There are, of course, many anxieties and worries caused by the ‘new normal’. In the scheme of things, what follows may seem minor but, for one small section of the population, a particular frustration of the lockdown is the lockout from the libraries. For the duration, I am seated two miles from one of the world’s greatest collections of manuscripts and printed books, and I cannot touch any of them. In this situation, all of us who do research — be they undergraduate dissertation writers, MA or doctoral students, early career scholars or those later in life like myself — are having to reshape how we do our most fundamental work, and learn what it is to study without the physical book.

Some of the responses to the situation have been heart-warming: library staff are working hard to help readers gain access to material even while their doors are closed; through social media and email, scholars have come to the support of each other. I am very lucky to be part of a convivial and helpful community at Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Some of its graduate students, building on good precedents elsewhere, are building a lockdown library so that they can help each other as they continue to research in these unexpected circumstances. Part of what they are doing is gathering together information about useful materials that are available online and providing helpful listings: at this time, necessity is proving the mother of inventorising.

It is in the same spirit that I thought it might be of assistance if we reflected on how we research a topic online and can use our experiences to perfect our techniques. I have come up with ten tips which I will share with you over the coming weeks, in the hope that they will help stimulate a conversation. The audience I have mind is, in the first place, those who are in a similar situation to our MA students in MEMS, but what I have to say should also be relevant to undergraduates starting a dissertation, and perhaps will not be entirely tedious reading for those more advanced in their research. It is also worth emphasizing that these tips reflect my own disciplinary background as an historian and palaeographer, and my chronological focus in the Renaissance, spanning the later Middle Ages and the (early) early modern period. In short, there will be much you can add to what I say and I welcome the opportunity to read from you.

Today, Tip I: Define and refine your search terms.

You have a sense of the topic you want to research and you want to narrow down its focus, check its feasibility and build up your bibliography. You are sitting in front of your computer screen with Google open and you are ready to type. The first tip is: stop, get a piece of paper or open a Word file. What you want to do is to think through what search terms will help you get the best out of the internet. If you are studying a particular character or text, you might think that is straightforward. However, if you just use the name and that person or work is very well-known, you will overwhelmed with the results: type in ‘Henry VIII’ and it returns 179 million results; Hamlet and you get 108 million. Yet, you will not be writing the king’s biography or a summary of the whole play, so you already will be thinking of the first wise step:

  1. Break down — many of us may feel like doing that at the moment but I do not mean you personally (and if you are feeling worried, do call for help). Instead, break down your topic into its elements, or think of identifiable individuals who will feature within it, characters who are less well-known and so you will receive a more manageable set of results. Similarly, you could search for a specific event which is within the remit of your topic. Go small.
  2. Remember the basic tricks of searching: for instance, try putting a specific phrase within inverted commas.
  3. Likewise, enter terms no prepositions — the absence there of ‘with’ makes it ungrammatical, but Google speaks a different language from mortals: you will gain more focussed results by leaving out the little words.
  4. Use variant spellings — let me give an example from my own research. One central figure of my studies is Humfrey, duke of Gloucester (d. 1447). Long ago, in a previous millennium, when I was writing my doctoral thesis, I spelt his forename in what has become the more usual way, as ‘Humphrey’, and for that I was roundly reprimanded when it came to my viva. So, I always now use the spelling the duke himself used; at the point I attained my doctorate, I became an ‘f’-ing historian. The rest of the world, though, has proven slow to catch up and so now, if I type Humfrey into Google, it assumes it is an error. If I accept its suggestion of ‘Humphrey’, it comes up with many more results, but if I insist on the correct spelling, it returns a different set of results (admittedly, with my work the top hit). One implication is that if I used only one spelling, I would miss relevant results. Try both.Google Screenshot
  5. Phrase your searches as others would – this is the other implication of the previous point: if I insisted on what I called the ‘correct’ spelling, I would be needlessly ignoring useful results. This does not mean accepting Google is right, it simply means that what we type is guided by how others express the subject. To give another example: the rulers of sixteenth-century England never called themselves ‘the Tudors’ and to use that designation as an adjective for a swathe of time is to imply it has a shared character that did not exist — but most people use the term, so deploy it in your searches. It does not commit you to employing it when you write up your work.
  6. Remember that Google has several tabs — the results that it throws back at you are listed under ‘all’, but you might want to look at ‘images’. Also useful is the section under ‘books’ (from the drop-down menu of ‘more’), which is more likely to lead you quickly to published works, though what it will suggest will either be old and out of copyright or recent, in copyright and so not available to view. At that point, you need to take your search a step further, and we will discuss that in the tips that are soon to follow.
  7. Refine your terms time and again — the process of searching is not one process undertaken at a single moment. What you find will lead you in new directions or spark some lateral thinking. Add those to your list of search terms and pursue them.
  8. Keep your page or file – it will become useful later, as we will explain in tip IX.

Next time: yes, do use Wikipedia as a springboard for your research.

Do feel free to comment, and let me know what your own tips.