How do I search for difficult to find things?
March 18, 2013 6:53 AM   Subscribe

My questions is this: Is there a method for searching for the difficult to find?

I'm doing research on the status of artifacts related to the history of audio-visual technology: Magic lanterns, educational radio guides, stereopticons, etc.
Many of these things are difficult to find. They could be in antique malls, private collections, stored in an attic or in a museum.
My questions is this: Is there a method for searching for the difficult to find?
I've been looking at criminal investigations, sunken treasure, archeology and butterfly collecting for ideas. Criminal investigations have been interesting so far because they operate in a similar way to the scientific method.
Is there another method I'm not aware of?
posted by PHINC to Education (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
....I'm a little unclear what you're looking for still. Are you talking about specific examples of such artifacts (i.e., the specific, exact magic lantern that P.T. Barnum used to show Abraham Lincoln something once), or are you just looking for any of those items (i.e., any magic lantern would do)? I'm also not clear what you mean when you're looking for the "status" of these things -- "status" in what sense? Are you not looking for the things themselves?

Also - what exactly would you be using this information for? That can also affect how you search (i.e., if you want to buy one vs. if you just want to catalog how many are out there).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:02 AM on March 18, 2013

I don't think magic lanterns and/or steropticons are all that hard to find. The manuals mig be trickier, as libraries don't usually have those. I work in research in a not unrelated field and I usually start with WorldCat, and then go to institutions, archives and then to dealers and collectors.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:09 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm looking for specific examples of artifacts. And these artifacts could be the the physical technology, lesson plans for educational radio from 1921, instructional guides for film strips. So, yes, specific actual physical objects.
I've been using exists or not and level of access to define status. So that if I cannot find an object its status is : Doesn't exist cannot access.
I'd like to create a catalog of these things for researchers.
But what I'm mostly interested in is the search method: How do you do this?
Most of the people I've spoken with will say "It's just in my head."
posted by PHINC at 7:13 AM on March 18, 2013

I've been using exists or not and level of access to define status. So that if I cannot find an object its status is : Doesn't exist cannot access.

....I'm even more confused now - do you have a list you're working from? How are you generating the list of items you're searching for? Because unless you're working from a pre-existing list, I'm not sure how you'd differntiate between "doesn't exist cannot access" and "never existed in the first place".

But. If you're working from a pre-existing list, I would start with who you knew was the last owner, find a way to contact them, and work back. Meaning, say that there was an instructional guide for a filmstrip - you find that the publisher was Time-Life. Contact Time-Life and ask whether they still have a copy. If they don't, ask what happened to the copies; they may tell you that they turned them all over to the Library of Congress. So then you go to the Library of Congress. Or, say that you're talking lesson plans for educational radio from 1921. You find out a station that was using them and call that station. If they don't have them, ask whether they were destroyed or what happened. And if they didn't destroy them, and said that they gave them to Sid The Antiques Dealer, then you call Sid and see if he sold them. If he sold them, see if he can tell you to whom - then he gives you Joe the Collector's name. Then you call Joe.

A lot of this would have to be done offline. But it is possible; I used this method to track down the phone number of the estate holder for a playwright from 1911 this way. The biggest tip I can give you is that if someone you talk to doesn't have something/doesn't know where something is, to ask the follow up question, "would you have any idea who might know?" I've found that prompts people to brainstorm a bit.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:24 AM on March 18, 2013

I am working from an existing list, three historical dissertations related to the history of audio-visual technology. I'm going to build an online database of which of these things exist, where they can be found, etc.
"would you have any idea who might know?" That's a good idea thanks!
posted by PHINC at 7:45 AM on March 18, 2013

Ah, thank you, MUCH clearer what you're doing now.

Yeah, I still think "start with the last person to have physical possession and work back." A lot of this may have to take place offline, but it's not all that hard to rock this old-school.

Or, wait, thought of another option - contact IASA and see if there are any libraries with an archive collection that specializes in this specific material. I'm betting there might be a handful of them; then you can reach out to the curators of these collections and see if they have any of the items on your list. You may be able to find a lot that way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:00 AM on March 18, 2013

I would also expand your existing list to include auction catalogs, museum holdings, and specialty publications like Collector's Weekly or any field-specific examples. If there are certain collections or collectors whose names continue to pop up, I would contact them directly-- seconding EmpressC that generally in niche fields, they'll know who else to contact or have other suggestions for places to look! You will probably have to use print sources in addition to online catalogs, as the back issues of smaller auction houses or of smaller museums are not always digitized and searchable. You could also keep an eye out for any specific exhibition catalogs that dealt with objects of this nature; these often include pieces from multiple museums or collections (sometimes even private ones).
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:06 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Based on my own research I would think "Doesn't exist cannot access" could be improved on a bit, e.g. by putting a date on it and indicating not just judgment but also the evidence that led to that judgment: what you know, what you've surmised, what you've tried, what you found, and what you wanted to find but didn't.

I couldn't tell you the number of times I found out later that something I was looking for could in fact be found, but that I was making one or more incorrect assumptions which prevented me from finding it. But maybe that's just me...
posted by johnofjack at 8:55 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

It might also be helpful if you could give us an example of how or where you're searching for objects now. I do a lot of a research on Roman art, for example, and trying to track down pieces through auctions works well a certain way and not well in other cases. Obviously these are a bit basic but the website of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York has quite a nice website/online collection feature and there are some early examples technology in this reconstruction of the now-defunct MOMI in London.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:47 AM on March 18, 2013

There's also the AMIA--and they often include collections of actual film projectors,etc..
And then there's enthusiast groups, like The Magic Lantern Society.

2007 Christie's auction
posted by Ideefixe at 12:05 PM on March 18, 2013

This is all very interesting and gives me a lot to think about. I appreciate your time and effort.
posted by PHINC at 12:42 PM on March 18, 2013

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