Why research is hard, part 2

(This is the second part in a series of posts. Part 1 is below. And, just to disclaim clearly in advance: I’m talking specifically about humanities research here, where most of the evidence a researcher works with consists of documents of some kind or other. The sciences are a whole other ballgame.)

During the CLIR fellows’ seminar two summers ago, we talked about whether access to scholarly information is
unnecessarily complicated. And I said that I’d always considered the learning curve for research tools to be a part of the larger learning curve for academic research in general. I was thinking of my first year in grad school, when “oh no, I don’t know how to telnet to the English Short Title Catalog!” and “crap, everyone else has read Foucault already
and I haven’t!” didn’t seem all that far apart in my mind. In other words, anyone learning the research ropes for the first time is assimilating all kinds of unfamiliar practices, all of which seem equally esoteric to newbie eyes. The unfamiliar information-organization practices I encountered were just one more part of a brand-new skill set. I would eventually learn to assemble an annotated bibliography; properly cite early modern books with no page numbers; mine someone’s footnotes for further sources; decipher secretary hand; and understand the language of literary theory. Figuring out the ISI Arts & Humanities Citation Index was no more arcane than all that, so I tended to class library skills in the same larger category with everything else.

I don’t know if I’d do that anymore. There are some skills that are unquestionably part of the research-qua-research set, like knowing where information you need is indexed and how to interpret the index when you find it. And there are some skills that clearly apply to the tools the researcher uses rather than the ultimate end of the research process. Knowing what kinds of articles the MLA Bibliography does and doesn’t include? A research skill. Knowing the difference between what the *, ?, and ! characters will let you do in an MLAB search? A tool-using skill.

But even that example illustrates that there’s not a clear line between one type of skill and the other. After all, if the asterisk makes the crucial difference in your search for “tennyson*” by pointing you to articles on Tennysonianism in later Victorian poets,which you wouldn’t have found otherwise, well, who’s to say that isn’t part of the researcher’s toolbox as well? Even though what you really care about is getting to the articles, the way you get to them is still part of the process — kind of like knowing how to operate a circular saw is part of knowing how to build a cabinet.

The thing is, though, that when graduate students are learning these skills, the latter type of example is the kind their professors may not bring up. I remember professors offering some advice on finding articles one one’s chosen topic, and we did have a brief library orientation (which, among other things, got us all acquainted with our subject librarian, who helped me a lot during later years). But for the most part, the tool-using skills were the ones I picked up on my own, by dint of a lot of experimentation and occasional queries at the reference desk.

So part of why research is hard has to do with the way scholars-in-training learn to research, which depends a lot on how individual graduate programs approach teaching them. If there isn’t much communication between a program and its library, there are going to be gaps in our hypothetical graduate student’s knowledge. Throw in an ever-changing and sometimes user-unfriendly tool set, a faculty that may or may not be aware of how the tool set has been changing, and a culture that prizes expert knowledge, and it’s no wonder newcomers to the process get lost.

To be continued…

* Example fabricated at random. Was there such a thing as “Tennysonianism”? I can’t remember. I’ll have to look it up.

One Response to “Why research is hard, part 2”

  1. harriet says:

    This is an interesting observation. At my university, there is no separate formal training in research skills beyond a two hour library orientation for first years. Theoretically such skills are supposed to be taught within each graduate course, but in practice, most profs just turn you loose. For some people (myself included), this works fine. I actually enjoy the process of figuring out the toolbox for a given project — it’s part of what I love about research. But at the same time, it does seem like we’re reinventing the wheel a lot. Another issue for us has been a general skepticism towards electronic searches without analog backup, as it were. I do a lot of work with the ProQuest newspaper databases, which has saved me countless hours of microfilm reading and enabled me to turn up hundreds and hundreds of references that I never would have located the old fashioned way in a fraction of the time. But there’s a definite learning curve — data input for the word by word searches is seriously flawed and you have to be a little creative at times to turn up what you need. I happen to think the time spent figuring it out is more than worth it. But there are still a few people out there who don’t feel the time spent learning the ropes of electronic database research is worth the time when you could do it the old fashioned way. Perhaps this is the problem of a separation between library and department.