Help a non-academic develop research skills for a wonky in-depth project
December 7, 2010 8:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm not an academic, not trained in the art of research, and I could use some guidance. I need advice on how to identify and track down sources for a multi-year exploration of a topic.

I'm embarking on an effort to understand an evolution of one aspect of American culture, from the colonial era to today, and I suspect my research may take me several years.

So far I'm on step one:
1. I've checked out pretty much every book I could find at the local public library that covers these topics. These books are written for a general audience and tend not to approach the topic quite from the angle I'm interested in, but they're a good start.

I suspect that steps two and three should be:
2. Go to the primary source documents cited by the popular books I'm reading.
3. Identify academic scholarship that has touched on the areas I'm interested in, read that, and seek out more primary sources as identified there.

I don't know how to go about either of these steps.

How do I track down primary sources that aren't available through my public library? Will the librarians at a community library be able to help with this? Should I try to affiliate myself with an academic library? (And how can I do this, given that I'm not a student or faculty member?)

And how do I identify academic scholarship that might be of interest to me? I don't want to limit myself to a specific academic sphere - I imagine history, sociology, women's studies, religious studies, business, economics and other fields are likely to have interesting things to say. So how do I figure out who has done research on this stuff before, and where it's been published?

Finally, do I have the right general idea about how to approach this in-depth research project, or am I missing something?

Bonus question: How should I best track my research for when I eventually write up my conclusions and try to get them published? Are there processes and procedures I should follow? Software that's invaluable?
posted by croutonsupafreak to Education (23 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
For specific suggestions, it would help if you told us a bit more about your topic. The usual way of starting a project like this is reading all the secondary literature (which it seems like you've started to do), noting what kinds of primary sources are used and where they are, and going from there. An affiliation with an academic library would make all this easier--can you affiliate as an alumnus anywhere?
posted by agent99 at 8:07 AM on December 7, 2010

Your public library may have a link with a community college, college or university library you can use. You can also buy your way into a university library. Here is for Portland state:
Also, Google Scholar is sort of OK.
posted by parmanparman at 8:11 AM on December 7, 2010

It looks like the Multnomah County Library offers JSTOR access to anyone with a library card - JSTOR is a fantastic academic journal resource, especially for social sciences and humanities. You can search the site without an account, but you'll need to log in through the library to read anything more than the first page of any article.
posted by theodolite at 8:16 AM on December 7, 2010

Ok, I'll jump in. Start by reading the books you have checked out of the library. Take notes-- very detailed notes-- as you read. Once you do a wide sweep of the books you have, you will be in a better position to do steps 2) and 3).

I am not familiar with Oregon but I know a little about access to state university libraries in Texas. Any resident has access for free, or for a nominal fee. But Texas is unusually wealthy and perhaps generous so check out the website for the state university nearest you. There might be some restrictions on what databases you can access. If your state university branch doesn't have the books you need, it can order them from another branch. All of this is based on my experience in Texas as a resident.

You're here asking the right questions and I'm sure the community is going to chime in with lots of helpful advice about 2) and 3).

My modest contribution is just to say 1) start reading 2) take detailed notes at every step of the way.
posted by vincele at 8:16 AM on December 7, 2010

Also, are you going to a little branch library? If so, the person behind the desk may not be a librarian and thus may not be the best guide for you. (Don't get me started.) I agree that a university library with its Real Librarians would be the best place for this kind of research, but failing that, make sure you're going to your city's big main library. If that library doesn't have the sources you want, be sure to ask the librarian about interlibrary loan, if she/he doesn't bring it up.

Depending on your topic, you might also call around and see if local historical societies (or whatever--botanical gardens? specific area nonprofits?) have libraries or professionals who can help you.
posted by scratch at 8:20 AM on December 7, 2010

I don't know what academic libraries are in your area, but it's likely that there is a way for the general public to get at their resources. Both universities I've attended had some way for people to either purchase a yearly membership or use their public library card (or a combination of both).

Beyond that, neither check ID at the door, so you can just walk in and read within the library. They have computers to allow you to browse without a signon, even. You only need to fuss with getting membership if you want to check out books.

You should check the libraries' websites to see what they have to say on the topic.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:22 AM on December 7, 2010

Your basic game plan for identifying academic research is to find a recent (last 10 years is okay, last 5 years is better, depending on the nature of the topic) academic book about the topic, look at the bibliography, and read everything there that seems even remotely relevant. If you still don't feel like you have enough sources, repeat for a few more books.

It would help if you gave us some idea of what your topic is.
posted by nasreddin at 8:27 AM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Inter-Library Loan is a way to get books made available to you that are in your library system and affliliated systems but not in your local branch. Talk to the fine folks in Circulation at your local branch.

Google Scholar is a good source for easily accessible scholarly articles and books.
posted by Pineapplicious at 8:29 AM on December 7, 2010

Portland State checkout policies might be helpful. It looks like if you pay $50 a year, you can check out up to five books at a time. I don't see it explicitly written anywhere but I would guess you can get in the library for free.

Also, yes, follow the sources. There are bibliographies in books for a reason. (The problem here is that for a while, every source you read suggests multiple new sources you want to read, and you get ridiculously long lists of Things To Read.)

And finally, in libraries there are these people called librarians that apparently get very excited if you ask them for help, because not enough people do.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:31 AM on December 7, 2010

Many University libraries have a policy that allows members of the community to come in and access the stacks, and perhaps even borrow books. I see you're in Portland; Portland State (to pick an example) allows borrowing privileges for a $50 annual fee. They also note, in the footnote, that there may be ways to access these materials via the public library; here's the Multnomah County Inter-library Loan policies. Again, though, you may have to pay for this.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:37 AM on December 7, 2010

Google news can also be surprisingly useful for pop culture research. Click the news button, search for what you want (eg pyrex), then hit the archives button on the left sidebar to get results sorted by date range in the left sidebar, then hit the dates you want (eg 1920-21).

You can fine tune it even further than that, but it really is quite good even at this kind of level for finding random primary sources out of digitized news archives that you wouldn't otherwise know about.
posted by Ahab at 8:39 AM on December 7, 2010

It might be tough to go through the secondary sources (articles more so than books) without academic credentials. Tracking down some article you need in a journal you can't find or that's come out more recently than JSTOR has archived can a nightmare, even with university-affiliation benefits like consortia and subscriptions to most journals. Of course, you can just buy your way in (via subscriptions or buying individual articles), but that is really expensive (like $20 a pop for articles, last time I checked?). JSTOR access will be a really important first step, but you should expect some difficulties and maybe befriend someone at a large university to take advantage of their journal subscriptions.

In general, (aside from travel expenses and time), getting ahold of primary sources should actually be the easiest part of your research. It varies by institution, but many are open to anyone calling himself a researcher (example: the Schlesinger Library at Harvard), and (most? all?) will welcome non-academic researchers who know what they're doing and have a well-defined project that necessitates looking at the primary sources and/or who will pay them. Once you're looking at the sources, you transcribe them if they aren't available elsewhere, take a ton of notes, and then you go home and analyze.

As for software, I just started using Scrivener on an AskMetafilter recommendation, and it's great for the outlining and writing stage. For earlier stages, I like the notebook view on MS Word, because I can divide my notes on secondary sources into tabs: I write out the table of contents and bibliographical info on the first tab, do a brief outline of each chapter on a second tab, a list of new dates and other facts to learn on a third, and then a bibliography of new texts to hunt down on the last. You could do the same thing with actual paper, I guess.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:40 AM on December 7, 2010

how do I identify academic scholarship that might be of interest to me?

There are citation indexes that allow you to search by topic or keyword, and tell you how many times a particular work has been cited. Actually, come to think of it, even Google Scholar does that. So that's one way.

Another way is to start looking closely at the bibliographies of the works you're already reading. Some sources will show up repeatedly, because they are the definitive works on the topic. Then go back to Google Scholar, or a citation index, and look for works that cite these definitive works. That should help you spread your net a bit wider, while still remaining on topic.

Should you have trouble getting complete access to an academic library as a non-student, a good workaround can be to sign up for the cheapest course available at the state library. If you take the course in a field related to the topic you're researching, you are guaranteed access to the relevant library if the university in question has more than one. Often the tuition is cheaper than what it costs to access the same electronic resources on your own. I know that a lot of academic libraries that allow local residents access to the stacks and print reference materials are not able to give them access to electronic resources.
posted by bardophile at 8:57 AM on December 7, 2010

Given I am a bit unorthodox in my approaches, but: I start exploring new topics by going to my RSS reader and email archives (I'm subscribed to a myriad of professional blogs and mailing lists). It is a very rare situation to be able to start as a stand-alone researcher of any topic, and if no attention is paid to what has been done, it is not rigorous research at all. Most probably, there is a "research frontier" active in the area of your research right now. After initially familiarizing yourself with the literature, you want to join the said research frontier. Identify societies and circles that are respected authorities in your area. Subscribe to their newsletters, personal blogs (not quite sure about historians, but I am willing to bet that PhD students do maintain thought-provoking blogs), etc. Participate in discussion. Most valuable opportunities to present research and publish come this way.

Google Scholar is probably the simplest most accessible way to search for cited authors right now. Harzing's Publish or Perish is a great tool that is based on google scholar API.

You may want to use tools for organizing your bibliography, such as Citeulike, Connotea, EndNote (standard between academics, but expensive), or similar.

(...) do I have the right general idea about how to approach this in-depth research project
- that is the ever-evolving part of your research method, and more profoundly, methodology to which you subscribe (there is a close link between that and your view of the world, in general). I recommend identifying one or two favorite books on methodology (this, for instance, has been the number one in what I do; and here is #2). Consider joining Methodspace.

One more recommendation: Webnographers' wiki.
posted by Jurate at 8:58 AM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might find the book The Independent Scholar [pdf] useful. While googling the book's title I came across

I did some qualitative research in grad school. I love this question and these resources. Probably overkill, but I love everything by Miles and Huberman.
posted by mecran01 at 9:51 AM on December 7, 2010

For managing bibliographies, I really like zotero. Right now it only works through firefox, but they are developing a standalone to work with other browsers. It's been a real time-saver for me.

In terms of citation style for publication, it depends on what kind of audience you want; for academic research writing you want Kate Turabian's Manual for Writers.

If I may offer some advice on the research and writing process itself: one key on a big project is to always be writing--don't just keep reading source after source, but rather stop after you read each source and see how that has added to your understanding or raised more questions. Otherwise you can get bogged down in the details.
posted by sean_in_nh at 10:05 AM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

You might also appreciate Steven Johnson talking about DevonThink.
posted by mecran01 at 10:06 AM on December 7, 2010

Google is a great tool for academics right now and probably offers much more than one institution. Google Books is one option to search a huge amount of primary sources and Google News Archive is another. Depending on your area of research there are other easily accessible online sources.
posted by JJ86 at 11:04 AM on December 7, 2010

Response by poster: This is all very helpful, thanks.

For those of you seeking more info about my topic: In broad terms, I'm researching the evolution of commerce and commercial culture in the U.S. - how/where people buy and sell, how commerce is viewed and discussed, how attitudes about commerce have changed as cultural norms have changed. I have several possible sub-topics that I may ultimately pursue as I do my research, but I'm trying not to limit myself until I have a broader understanding of the big picture.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:16 AM on December 7, 2010

I'm a historian and I work (broadly) in this same area; MeMail me if you'd like to discuss things to read. There is a LOT, especially given how broad your time span is.
posted by agent99 at 12:15 PM on December 7, 2010

I love the Oxford Guide to Library Research for methods and tips. It just lays things out in a very clear and systematic way, so can help you be a little more systematic in your approach.
posted by lillygog at 5:38 PM on December 7, 2010

Seconding Zotero for managing citations/creating bibliographies. This semester I started using Evernote to organize my notes on articles I've read. It's a system that's helped me put out several dozen pages of work so far...

As far as tracking research - if you cite things as you write (Zotero has a plugin for Word that makes this very easy, you can write a sentence, and then add a citation, and then later make a bibliography of everything you've cited so far), I promise it will make your life so much easier. The difference for me between undergrad and grad school is when I learned to start citing sources AND creating my bibliography at the same time. This has the added bonus of making sure you don't accidentally wander into plagiarism.

If you establish some kind of affiliation with an academic library (which is essential to getting access to databases, unless you can find a willing friend to hook you up), many offer database searching and citation management workshops. Try to take one or both of them, this will really demystify the process of collecting research.

The good thing about archival research is that you typically just have to fill out registration forms and bring a photo ID - no academic affiliation is required at many archives. On the other hand, the vast majority of archival material is not digitized, which will require you to make on-site visits or hire a researcher on your behalf, both of which can be costly (either in time, money or both).

Although they are academic-specific, I love the blogs StudyHacks and ProfHacker for ideas on how go about research and writing.
posted by mostly vowels at 8:54 PM on December 7, 2010

Another vote for Zotero for organizing your research. It's not really just limited to articles and books, but to most things you could possible cite, emails, films, pictures, etc. For webpages, you can take snapshots and annotate them with highlights and sticky notes. You can also attach or link any type of files to a bibliographical entry to make them easier to find.

I also like for finding resources (and checking if they are in a library near you) and making lists of those resources. The individual items and your lists are exportable to HTML/RTF/Endnote/Zotero/RefWorks for citing. Its subsite, Worldcat Identities does a pretty good job of doing an overview of an author's work if you find the works of a particular author to be particularly relevant. You might even be able to find their thesis/dissertation, and those will contain a jackpot of bibliographies. Depending on the school and its digital depository policies, you can also get the downloadable full text of the theses/dissertation, i.e. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center

Once you know something's out there, you can do an interlibrary loan at your local library (costs may vary).
posted by jyorraku at 11:27 PM on December 7, 2010

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