Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Researching Conventional Literary Scholarship: 12 Ways

While I have urged my students to diversify their literary research by adding a social and new media layer to their inquiry process, I also want them to make good use of available, conventional scholarship. Here are several good ways to do this. Rather than introducing just a set of specific databases or sites, I wish to emphasize principles of good research in the digital age.

Here are 12 ways to go about researching conventional literary scholarship

1. Tell people
This can be done in person or through various social media. But in the act of telling people what you are searching for, you are requiring yourself to think about and specify your topic, and it is also possible that these people might just help you. An important person to alert to your quest is the librarian, and especially a subject specialist in the area of research.

2. Curate your research
Keep a research log, or use social bookmarking tools, or a citation manager like Zotero or RefWorks to keep track of what you search.

3. Brainstorm keywords and search terms
Whether using a general search engine or a specific literary database, it's important to navigate one's research by way of metadata: categories and labels that will ease the finding of appropriate sources. Once you have an initial list, this will get you going; however, it is important to keep your eye open for metadata you find along the way, which you can then incorporate into your own future searching. Don't forget about Library of Congress subject headings that come up in library catalog searches. And don't forget about informal metatdata (folksonomies) that occur in social media (hashtags, blog labels, etc.)

4. Physically visit the library
This is to get you to talk to a librarian,  to get you to use print references, and to get you to browse bookshelves using some planned serendipity (browsing among books adjacent to books you have found through a catalog search).

5. Use a Subject / Research Guide
Librarians put together subject guides. These are curated sets of resources that are more authoritative and helpful than what you could find through random or general searching. Look for them and use them! Here is the English Literatures subject guide from BYU. But I also found many others that are specific to Milton by using this search phrase on Google (note how it limits search results to educational [.edu] websites):
site:edu ("subject guide" OR "research guide") milton

6. Check Reference Works
These include paper and online encyclopedias, concordances, timelines, or other specialized kinds of reference works. They differ from interpretive scholarship found in journal articles or monographs. They are often useful for getting the lay of the land. For example, a search of  the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gives an encyclopedic biography of John Milton, but also includes a short and authoritative list of sources (such as D.L. Clark's Milton at St Paul's School) and links to relevant bibliographies and archives.

7. Check Literature Gateways and Databases
Certain commercial databases are highly dense with traditional scholarship and combine reference material, media, web links, primary texts, and criticism -- such as Gale's Literature Resource Center (LRC) or Literature Online (LION). Some online gateways are authoritative for literary research, such as Luminarium for Renaissance literature.

8. Consult Primary Texts and Archives
These are increasingly available online and can enhance interpretation by viewing texts in their original formats. Visit an actual archive, or find archival images of primary texts via Early English Books Online (EEBO -- both text version and image version).

9. Search for Books
The scholarly monograph is available in many formats and locations.

  • Library catalogs. (Such as the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU, but also check WorldCat, which is a federated catalog, or the Library of Congress)
  • Library shelves. That's right, physically browse the shelves of your library.
  • eBooks (including Google Books, but also ebook collections like ebrary and EBSCO electronic books -- which may require institutional affiliations for access).
  • Publisher websites (like Oxford Univ. Press, Cambridge Univ. Press, Routledge, etc.)
  • Amazon. That's right. Especially make use of the recommendation engine.

10. Search for Articles

  • Use the MLA International Bibliography, Project Muse, Humanities Full Text, ABELL, etc. (all of which can be found on a subject or research guide).
  • Google Scholar (often useful to see what has been well cited)
11. Search Dissertations
These are often more current and hold the possibility of finding and contacting their authors.

12. Search Bibliographies
Using any of the above sources, consult the further reading, works cited, or bibliography sections of these to find more starting points for your research.

Finally, consider using various social networks to mine for primary and secondary sources. Someone might recommend a scholarly article or book on Twitter that could be more current and authoritative than a similar book found in a library catalog.

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