Library Research Techniques of the Professional Scholar

  1. Lateral Thinking and Abstract Thinking

        All scholarly analysis involves looking at the evidence and discovering a pattern that makes meaning. In literary analysis, for instance, the evidence can be the text itself, the text in combination with other texts by the same author or others from the same or different eras, the economic and social history of the time in which the author produced the text, etc.. When you’ve finished searching Internet-based bibliographic indices or online library catalogues on the keywords (terms of art, main words that describe the "pattern" you’re studying), make a list of all their synonyms and repeat the search. Even if you found things with your own words for things, don’t assume the rest of the scholarly world uses the same terms you do unless you’ve been in the business for a while.

        When you’ve finished searching, and especially if you have found nothing or not what you wanted, move up the scale of abstraction in your name for the thing or concept. For instance, if you were working on a thesis that involved "Hawthorne" and "paranoia," which of these terms is higher on the scale of abstraction? Rank them from most concrete to most abstract:

Note that if you stay at the same level of abstraction (i.e., "anxiety") you'll likely be led away from higher order thinking about paranoia (except to the degree that anxiety might overlap with paranoia in the same person's condition).

  1. Learning to recognize good, laterally useful sources and to avoid the "fatal embrace" of a "too good source."

What do you want from the sources you seek? You do NOT want them to tell you what to think about evidence, nor do you want them to explain to you what an author meant by writing the a work of literature. Researchers who seek their own theses in other writers’ work are like drug addicts looking for an "authority fix" rather than developing their own, autonomous sources of authority.

You DO want them to tell you about: terms of art and how to use them; lines of logical analysis that work in tales you have not yet read but which could work in your own; references to tales you don’t know about and which could build your own thesis.

  1. "Gold Mining"

        When you get a good source, seek your source’s sources. That writer has been working for you for years, and has assembled the sources you really want to find. In gold mining, this is called "high-grading the ore" to concentrate on processing stuff that already has been pre-selected as "the best." For instance, when panning gold, they don't just process all the sand in Summit County, Colorado, but rather they seek the lowest spots in gravel banks located in rivers running out of known gold-bearing geological formations. The river has been patiently and powerfully crushing and sorting rocks for millions of years, and it always puts the gold in the same sorts of places, on the bottom, jammed in cracks in the river's bed, because gold is heavier than other elements. Similarly, the professional scholar's book arises out of a similar crunching and testing and sorting of the scholar's predecessor sources, and they're all stacked in neat little piles in the source's annotations and bibliography or Works Cited section. Read the titles with some discernment, check the index and find where and how they're being referenced, and go for the ones described as "insightful," "indispensable," "amazing," and "essential," etc.

        Also, when you get a good source, search again under your source’s name. Critics develop methodologies that work on many authors, and an essay on Hemingway might work well as a source for terms of art or logical strategies that also will work on Hawthorne. Also, they tend to follow the data they've created on one topic to further conclusions expressed in more books and articles, sometimes collected as essays in topical collections not specifically edited by them. The Humanities Index is a great way to spot those chapters. The main principle is that your source, like the gold miners' river, keeps producing results all along its career, and to stop with the first one you find might be the reason why you're not rich! The treasure goes to those who persevere intelligently and who never stop too soon.