Research: It’s not magic, alas.

A few comments and questions I’ve had over the years made me think that some comments on /how/ I approach research might be valuable. I’m discussing research in an SCA context, and I am by no means an expert. These rabbit holes have many paths, and how my brain jumps from info to info might not be how your brain works. Comments and suggestions are very welcome here, and if you are coming up with interesting information.. keep going on what you’re doing! Also, research is a topic without a lot of visuals and a lot of words. I promise a cute cat photo at the end.

A few comments and caveats to start with. I have the amazing luxury of having an academic library at my fingertips. It doesn’t have everything by any stretch, no one library has everything, but I have a great many scientific journals in easy online access. I know I’m lucky. If you graduated from a university, you may still have alumni access to some degree. I can only speak to University of Guelph, but alumni here have some access still. Otherwise, make some friends. 🙂

The other main point I want to make is the reality that google coughs up all sorts of crap, most of it irrelevant, or non-helpful. (looking at you, pintrest). There’s no magic to making it just give you relevant information. There’s no secret search engine that only gives you the good stuff. (If you’ve found it, please let me know. Also, I think you’ve met an AI.) The vast majority of research is stubbornly clicking links and digging through complete irrelevancies until you find something useful. This is not you being bad at google, it’s like that for everyone.

Basic research starts with throwing what seems like a likely search term at google. (Say ‘medieval sheep breeds’ or ‘medieval weave sizing’). You then get back a whole list of stuff. Some of it is relevant. Sometimes you hit a jackpot, and most of it is relevant. (Medieval sheep breeds gives plenty of relevant links). Usually you get a pile of dreck that you have to go digging into. This is the point where wikipedia is actually sometimes useful, stop by for alternative terms, and their reference list. When I searched for Medieval weave sizing, what I got back shows me that what I mean (the sizing that is effectively goop to coat your warp to tame fuzzies and make it stronger) is not that I get from that search term. Google thinks I mean either the size of cloth, or the size of threads within. Both interesting, but not what I was looking for! Sometimes, that results in a moment (or day, or weeks) down new rabbit holes of ‘ooh, thread sizes? Awesome. I should make a note of these places for when I’m looking for thread size’. That’s when you save links, however works for you. (Gdocs, reference manager (I use Zotero), post it notes, write it on the walls, you do you.) Then, you try a new search term, because that clearly didn’t work. Try again! ‘Medieval warp sizing’ Voila! Now we’ve got some weavers discussing sizing for their warps.

This is when the reading starts. Open them all up. Read them all, or at least skim them all. Some of them you’ll think ‘damn, I am pretty sure they made all this up’, and you close those tabs. Some of them, you’ll read and think ‘hunh, that’s neat.’ and possibly make some notes, probably just appreciate the info and close those tabs. When the stars align, you find a page that sounds reasonable, made MORE reasonable by having references. Sometimes those are links to other pages. Sometimes it’s mention of books, or journals, or articles. See a book mentioned? Google it. See an article or journal mentioned? Google it. Follow the links (lament dead links that sounded so very very promising. Sometimes you can win with wayback machine, but not always). See where they go. It may be to an article that evokes the ‘Well yeah.. that’s a hard nope!’, it might be to a gem.

So you’ve found a reference to a book or journal that isn’t easily accessible. Sometimes, google books shows you just enough of the book in question to get the section you need. Sometimes, worldcat (world wide library catalog) shows that it’s in a library that you can interlibrary loan from. Sometimes, you start asking your friends who can get you a book or a journal article. (or even a scan of a few pages. Scanning a whole book is Bad under copyright. Scanning a few pages is fine.) Sometimes you just write it down for now, and hope you bump into it eventually. Some books/articles just are out of reach, and it sucks, and it happens.

The other awesome avenue for digging up research jumping off points is taking classes and letting someone else help the sifting. Check out their reference page, go digging in there yourself and see what you find. Maybe you have a different interpretation of that picture, or that phrase, or that article. Maybe they have a link to something with a link to something that is exactly what you were hoping to find out of that book that you couldn’t get ahold of.

Is this deep rigorous experimental archeology that will get you published? No. However, I’m expecting that anyone at that stage of the research game is laughing right now, and trying to come up with a polite way to call me a hack. This is starting points, jumping off, finding ways to add a bit more historical context to your documentation, or just to your curiosity. Research isn’t super scary, or some sort of magic skill. It’s mostly a lot of ‘ooh, what’s THAT’ and tenacity.

Alright, I did promise a cute cat photo if you made it this far. These are Dalla’s thoughts on researching anything that isn’t her food dish. Go forth and google!

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