Enquiring Minds Want to Know
When I received the assignment in my English class to do a research paper, my problem was not a lack of subjects to choose from, but rather an overabundance. I am curious about many things, such as what kind of clothes Queen Elizabeth wore, what a real medieval romance story was like, what is quantum physics, whether or not the bonobo chimps really our closest relatives, what Buddhism is really about, and so on. However, I managed to narrow it down to one topic fairly quickly, because it occurred to me that if I did a research paper on precisely how to do research, I would have a useful tool with which to satisfy many of my yearnings for knowledge.
The Writing Center at Whatcom Community College has a link to a web site called Writing a Research Paper (Hamid), in which one portion answers the question, "What is Research?" It specifies two types. The first is original research, which is when you find out something completely new about your subject. That is not what I will discuss here. I wanted to learn about the second type of research, i.e. the methodology of finding out what was already written or known about a subject.
I already had a few small head-starts. Our class had been given a short lecture by one of the librarians at the Whatcom Community College library. Gillian Mcleod had explained to us some of the places to begin looking, and then outlined some of the online resources available to us, as well as other services available in our library.
My choice to begin researching was the old, time-honored method of checking the catalog to see what was available in my subject. Our catalog is now an online search tool. (Let me sadly observe that my children will never even know what a card catalog is.) I found a few headings under the subject of research, wrote down the numbers, and went to cruise the stacks.
The books I wanted to look at were all on the same aisle, so I started perusing titles, and flipping through likely candidates. Half an hour of searching yielded two books that might be pertinent to my topic. I checked them out and hustled home. The Successful Students Handbook, by Rita Phipps, had a chapter that I found extremely useful. Following is a condensed list of Phipps' advice.
The second book I brought home and read was apparently a book about education, entitled Instructional Implications of Inquiry, written in the 1970s by Frank L. Ryan. Although written to assist teachers in designing curriculum to help foster in their students a lively curiosity as well as analytical judgment, I found it useful for what it had to say about research and discriminating between sources. There are at least two types of sources, called primary and secondary sources. A primary source is one that is close in space and time to your subject. For instance, an eyewitness account of an event would be a primary source, such as the detailed Stowe Inventory, which was the royal catalogue of Queen Elizabeths wardrobe. A secondary resource is what someone else wrote about a subject when studying it later, such as the book Queen Elizabeths Wardrobe Unlockd by Janet Arnold, written in the 1980s. A painting of Queen Elizabeth done by an artist who had seen her would be a primary source, while a copy of that painting done fifty years later would be a secondary source.
Queen Elizabeths Wardrobe Unlockd was a fascinating book, and the process of finding it so I could read it was one of the head-starts I had for this research. I encountered this book for sale, and it cost over one hundred dollars. As I could not afford to spend that much but still had a burning desire to read it, I decided to search Western Washington Universitys massive collection to see if they had it. I was deeply disappointed to learn they did not. Their online catalog had a wider search option, called Cascade search, which did list the book, but it was not available locally. However, I had read a phrase that made me curious: inter-library loans. I asked at WWUs circulation desk about this, and the person on duty told me that since I was not a student at Western, I would have to borrow it either through the public library or my own schools library. Bringing the printout about the book back to our library, I inquired about the possibility of borrowing the tome through Whatcom Community Colleges Library. The librarian on duty handed me a form to fill out, took the printout and attached it to the application, and in just four short weeks I had the book in my hot little hands!
This experience opened up an entirely new range of possibilities to me. What else could I acquire through the college library?
During the short lecture given by the librarian, she implied that when you were doing research, the librarian could become your best friend. The first book I read during research told me not to hesitate to ask the librarian if I needed help. With these things in mind, I hunted down Gillian Mcleod and asked her for a personal interview. (My only regret is that I didnt bring a tape recorder!) She was an absolute font of information! When asked about interlibrary loans, she told me that almost any book was available, and all she had to do was put the request out on the net, to a list which served librarians. She indicated that having the ISBN would be the quickest way to get an answer.
Wait a minute! I detected a gap in my knowledge. I had had several people ask me for that number when I was looking for a book. Just what was an ISBN, anyway?
"International Standard Book Number" was Gillians reply. She told me it was a unique number for each book. If one version of a book had an extra page, or was a hardback version, or a paperback version, it had its own ISBN. She also gave me a breakdown of the numbers, but as I am horrible at taking notes and forgot to bring that tape recorder, I had to have another librarian help me look it up later. I got a printout off the net, which had the specifics. The first number is a group or country identifier. This equates roughly with language, so if you can only read English, dont bother with any books that have a number other than zero first. The second group of numbers is the publisher identifier, and my impression is that this is a sub-category to the first number, i.e. the same number might mean a different publisher if the first number of two separate ISBNs differed. The next group of numbers is a title identifier specific to a certain edition of the book (see above), and the last number is a computer check digit. The printout also explained that when the last digit is an X, this is really the Roman numeral ten.
Recently, I had been reading a book called Dress in Mediaeval France, written by Joan Evans. It had some references to some genuine medieval romances, which were apparently in French. I asked Gillian how I would go about finding something cited in another book.
She hoped that a scholar would have thoroughly listed their sources, but I indicated that I couldnt find a specific listing in the bibliography. Could I contact the publishers, or the author? "The publishers wouldnt know anything, and the author is probably dead," she replied.
There had to be some way. "What about the Library of Congress?" I asked. "Can I search their catalog on the web? Can I borrow books from them?"
"Sure. Let me get you their web address. I dont know their policy on lending books."
Wow! I could actually look through the Library of Congress! I was thrilled with that little piece of information. But I wasnt through asking questions yet. It seemed I had come full circle back to interlibrary loans. There were still things I was wondering, such as if I could get books from another country.
Gillian indicated that such a thing was possible, but unlikely for an undergraduate student such as myself. The larger four-year universities, such as U.W., could probably borrow books for people researching to get their graduate degrees. As long as a purpose was known (and there was the further implication here that the person wanting to borrow a book from overseas would have to be well known and responsible) there was not much problem. Interlibrary loans between Canada and the U.S. were not so difficult.
After thanking Gillian for her time, I trotted home with my trophy, the URL of the Library of Congress. The good news is that it is easy to find. The bad news is that the catalog is often busy (full). I took the opportunity to cruise around the site, and learn that one might possibly borrow a book on interlibrary loan from them, but only if all other avenues have been exhausted. I learned physical facts about the library as well. The Library of Congress is made up of four buildings! Four HUGE buildings! A new lust overcame me. I want to go to the Library of Congress. I will need at least two weeks and camping equipment. That place is a bookworms dream!
A week later, after I had checked out Dress in Mediaeval France again from Westerns Library, I sat at my computer and finally managed to get a spot in the LOCs catalog. I turned to the page in the book which had the references I wanted to investigate, and typed them in under title. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Rats! I then tried medieval romances as a subject. Here I started to get some nibbles, though not what I was looking for precisely. My subject, I found, was a subcategory of medieval tales, so I decided to take a look at that. I was awed. There are one hundred and fifty seven books in the Library of Congress about medieval tales. Unfortunately, the one I was looking for did not seem to be there. I did not think the search was a failure, though, because here were so many books about medieval tales, and if you request a full record from the catalog for a book, it has the ISBN!
I was not satisfied that I had exhausted all possible avenues for finding an English translation of the ancient French romance tale "Flamenca," which was mentioned in Dress in Mediaeval France. When Gillian had given us a short lecture on library resources, she mentioned Ebsco and Proquest, which are similar to search engines, except what they search are general and academic journals. Ebsco seems to have specifically scholarly journals, while Proquest has some popular magazines and newspapers as well. On many of the things a search conducted in these programs turns up, you can not only have the information about the journal, but a full text version of the article as well. It was fun to poke around in them, and learn that there is one journal which seems to cater to nothing but scholarly works on medieval writings. At first I had limited my search to "full text" and "peer reviewed", which are options available for the specific purpose of limiting your search. However, as I had not found what I was looking for, I opted for a wider search in "Proquest." I entered "medieval tales AND translation," which gave me hundreds of articles. The first two pages didnt have what I was looking for. I was almost ready to write off the search for that particular romance as a failure. It had been a good learning experience for me to explore "Ebsco" and "Proquest." I concluded that the second one was friendlier. I also gained a few more places to look for information about things medieval.
I had one last possible hope of finding something about "Flamenca." I would do what I most dreaded, what I had learned usually meant hours of searching through dreck, what I felt was least likely to turn up anything relevant. I would search the Internet. Gillian, in her lecture to us, had given us a brief overview of the various search engines. She confirmed what I had learned before, that "Google" is the favored search engine of scholars, but also revealed whythe people who run it ask scholars to review sites for relevance to a particular category. She specified that "Google" operated on keywords rather than subject. I was O.K. with that, and chose to go to "Google" immediately.
I first typed in "Flamenca." It was just as I expected . . . I got 34,900 results. As I scrolled through the first page, I was losing hope, because over half of them were not in English and many seemed to be about dancing. I then reflected back upon what Gillian had told us about the Boolean operators. If you typed "AND" between two words, the search engine would look for sites which had both words in it. "OR" would indicate that the search would find sites with either word, and "NOT" would eliminate all sites that had the word directly following that operator. Right behind "Flamenca," I added "AND translation." BINGO! The first site listed on the new page of results had my two words, in boldface, right next to each other. When I went to the site, I found I was in a bibliography. It was some sort of paper for a class, or lecture for a university, because I recognized the "edu" in the URL. What a score! Far down this bibliography page, I found that there were actually two translations of "Flamenca" that this person had used for sources.
I heaved a great sigh as the pages spewed out of my printer. I knew my research was not done. The gentleman who had done this research had nicely recorded all of his sources for this paper using MLA format. My initial thought was, "What the heck good is this format? The ISBN would be so much more useful " At least I had the authors name and the title. I couldnt see how having the publisher would help me. All right. I would go back to the Library of Congress.
Typing in the authors name didnt find it for me. Which I considered a little funny, since the bibliography listed one of the books as having been published in New York. I thought the Library of Congress was supposed to have all the books printed in the U.S.? Hmmm. Something funny about the bibliography. It had some numbers and letters listed after those two entries. AH HAH! Could these be call numbers for the Library of Congress? If so, this was a very nice man, the person who wrote this bibliography. I backed up to the search page, and used the "call number" browse option. Typing in those numbers and letters had an immediate result, and there they were: two translations of "Flamenco" into English were in the Library of Congress. What good would that do me? Well, remember inter-library loans? I requested the full record. I wrote down the ISBNs. I thought, "If I hurry into the library with this, I could have some good reading material for Christmas break."
I was very happy to have reached the end of this paper trail. Well, kind of a paper trail! There are still many things out there to learn, many things I want to know about, but with all the information I gained doing this research paper, I can go forward with much more confidence that I will be able to find something. I am no longer limited to just my local libraries. I will not be foiled by obscure references in books, because I have learned several methods of finding and acquiring their sources.
I guess the internet is a really good thing, which seems like an astounding change of attitude for me, the person who just three short years ago had trouble finding the "on" button of a computer. Gillian told us a story in the lecture of when she was getting her degree. When she was researching for her thesis, she had to look journals up in paper indexes, write down all the information by hand of those she thought would be helpful in her research, take them to the librarian, and if she were very, very lucky, they might have one of the things on her list. Otherwise she had to go back and do it all again. With all the tools available on the internet I will never have to do that. Goodbye nostalgic sorrow for card catalogs! If you know how to use a knife, and are careful, you dont need to be afraid of the knife. I dont need to fear the internet. It is a tool, just like any other.
As I stated at the beginning, I am interested in many things. This research has left me sad in a way. I have discovered that there is so much information available that I will never be able to read it all! I wont live long enough! Well, I hope you will excuse me, but Ive spent enough time on this paper. I have some reading to do.
Bowker, R.R "Frequently Asked Questions About the ISBN." 2001. ISBN org. 16 Nov. 2001
Hamid, Sarah. "Writing a Research Paper." 1995-2001. Online Writing Lab. Purdue University. 11 Nov. 2001
Library of Congress. 11, 18 and 23 Nov. 2001 <http://LCweb.loc.gov>.
Mcleod, Gillian. Lecture to Sherri Winans English 201 class. 1 Nov. 2001.
---. Personal Interview. 11 Nov. 2001.
Phipps, Rita. The Successful Students Handbook. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983.
Ryan, Frank L. and Arthur K. Ellis. Instructional Implications of Inquiry. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice Hall,