Library Research Techniques of the Professional Scholar
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 youve finished searching Internet-based bibliographic indices
or online library catalogues on the keywords (terms of art, main words that describe the
"pattern" youre studying), make a list of all their synonyms and repeat
the search. Even if you found things with your own words for things, dont assume
the rest of the scholarly world uses the same terms you do unless youve been in the
business for a while.
- Lateral Thinking and Abstract Thinking
youve 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).
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.
- Learning to recognize good, laterally useful sources and to avoid the "fatal
embrace" of a "too good source."
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 dont know about and which
could build your own thesis.
When you get a good source, seek your sources 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.
- "Gold Mining"
when you get a good source, search again under your sources 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.