How research has changed : digital access

I was talking to a friend online a couple of weeks ago, who was marvelling at how easy it is to do some kinds of research now – and how much has changed. So let’s take a few posts to talk about how – and what you might want to know.

Massive pendulum clock (from the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios) with the text "Times change"

A little background

When I was in college, in the late 90s (I graduated in 98), we had computer catalogues, but they were often a bit limited. They’d tell you what that library had, but finding out what other libraries nearby had was complicated. Systems often didn’t talk to each other well. You could often do searches, but not find similar books, or books that were nearby on the shelves.

And while there were some computer databases out there, a lot of journals, you still had to go look up topics in the index – printed volumes that came out with additional volumes every so often. Once you figured out what issues you wanted, you’d then have to go walk down rows and rows of shelving and find the actual physical copy. If it was actually on the shelf, and someone else wasn’t using it (or it hadn’t been misplaced.)

As you can imagine, this all took rather a lot of time to even figure out if a thing you were interested in was available, never mind looking at it to see if it was useful for what you needed.

By the time I finished graduate school in library science almost a decade later, in 2007, a lot of things had changed. Catalogues talked to each other much more. And a lot of academic journals had at least an online index, and often online access to articles. You could do a search, find articles (or at least the basics and an abstract) and then go find the article if you had to.

What’s out there?

There are three huge things that have changed in the past decade or two.

  • Figuring out what books (or other resources) might be available.
  • Much more rapid access to them in many cases
  • Easier to find specialists, archives, and museum collection items.

All of these combine to change how research works. (I’m mostly talking in the humanities here, obviously the sciences are different!) We spend a lot less time just getting access to materials or figuring out what materials we might eventually get access to, and can spend a lot more time actually studying those materials, or reading more about them, or accessing detailed research materials.

I’ll be talking more about online catalogue resources, online database resources, and citation managers in future posts, but I want to talk a little about finding experts here.

Experts and specialist knowledge

One of the things that the Internet has made much better is that we have a lot more access to historical material than we used to. Many libraries and archives have been able to digitize at least some of their material.

Why not all of it? Most archives have some things that are confidential or restricted for various reasons. But also, there’s a lot of material that may not be a big priority for researchers, or is difficult to digitize. The library I work in, the archives have papers of the institution’s directors, and the more recent ones are restricted since they may have discussions about students or staff who are still alive.

We have huge collections of incoming and outgoing correspondence, but the outgoing letters are on very thin carbon paper, and difficult and time-consuming to scan well (and also, mostly not a high focus of research interest) so they’re not as high a priority as other materials that are more commonly asked about, or that are easier to scan.

But I digress.

A thing that the Internet makes a lot more possible is figuring out if there’s someone out there who is an expert in the thing you’re doing, or is a librarian or an archivist or a museum curator whose collection has more about a topic you’re interested in.

Obviously, you want to do research in other ways, too, but there are a lot of solutions, now, for those questions that books and academic articles don’t answer (yet!)

A lot of what I do at work is help point people at resources and materials – because I work with those materials all the time, and they don’t, and I can say “Oh, yes, this will help.”

We have resource guides that deal with some of the more common questions and issues so that we can pull them out – they took me a while to write up, but now they’re done, and they’re helpful to people.

Anyway, these are now easier to find than they used to be. Most collections of any meaningful size will have a website, and if you can hit on the right search terms, or do a little digging (like looking for institutions or organizations associated with the thing you’re interested in) then you can find more resources. Often the websites themselves will have a lot – but even better, you can find other ways to connect or communicate. Even if the first place you try doesn’t have something, maybe they’ll know someone else who does and can point you there.

(Some institutions are really competitive with each other. But there are others out there that are just delighted to connect people with information, however that happens.)

Next time

I’ll be tackling online catalogues in my next post, with a few great resources for figuring out what materials might be out there, and how to get hold of them.

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