Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)

Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)

by Andrew Abbott

ISBN: 9780226167787

Publisher University of Chicago Press

Published in Politics & Social Sciences/Sociology

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Sample Chapter



1. A Manual of Research

This is a manual on how to do a research project with preexisting materials, stored in libraries or online databases. What exactly do I mean by this?

First, this is a manual, a how-to book. It is not a handbook or listing of techniques and sources, as are most books on library research. Such books are organized from the librarian's point of view. They treat different types of searches: by keywords, by citations, and so on. They treat different types of sources: archives, maps, censuses, and so on. In short, they tell you how to find particular things. But finding things is actually a rather small part of research. Finding things is necessary, but other things are more important. So that is my first point: this is a manual on research, not a guide for how to find things in libraries or online.

My second key phrase is "doing a research project." I could have said "doing research." But then you would have thought I meant "finding things." But as I have just said, "doing research" is not finding things. "Doing research" means constructing an answer to a puzzle you have posed. Now you might think that the answer to any possible question or puzzle is out there somewhere in the library or online, and that "research" means finding that answer. But it doesn't. The number of possible questions (and hence the number of answers to those questions) is far larger than the number of "things out there." This is because the answers to puzzles or questions always involve combinations of "things out there," and there are obviously many, many more combinations of things than there are things by themselves. So library and online researchers never think that the answers to their puzzles are simply available to be found, even though information relevant to those answers will of course be available—usually far too much information. The answers themselves have to be constructed by combining that information in a particular way: expert knowing. So to avoid the misunderstanding that "research" is just "finding things," I say that we "do research projects," not that we "do research."

An example makes the distinction clear. Take the question of how many lawyers there are in America. If I ask twenty students to go to the Internet and get this number, they bring back twenty different and equally authoritative numbers, running from around 500,000 up toward two million. For the answer depends entirely on what you mean by "lawyer": Graduates of law schools? People who have passed state or federal bar exams? People currently employed as lawyers (whatever that means)? People who have current licenses to practice (before which courts?)? Each of these numbers is the right answer, but only if we are asking a certain question. If we are thinking about the impact of licensing fees on lawyers, we are probably worried about how many people have passed the bar exam (not just those with licenses), because we are interested in whether the fees discouraged some people from applying for licenses. If we are thinking about whether the typical citizen actually understands how courts work, then we are probably interested in the percentage of the population that has ever attended law school and learned there the legal habit of mind. If we are thinking about legal services for the poor, then we are perhaps interested only in practicing lawyers whose practices include personal clients of some sort.

That is, it is our research interest that determines which of the "numbers of lawyers in America" is the right one. A good librarian will help you find them all. But it is not her job to tell you which one you ought to want or even to tell you that there is more than one. That's your job as a researcher. More generally, gathering information relevant to your puzzle is an important part of a research project, but the main problem is to figure out what the puzzle is and what information it requires. Once you've managed that, finding the relevant information turns out to be pretty routine. So just remember that "doing research" does not mean "finding things" in this book. It means posing a research question, gathering relevant materials, and assembling an answer out of those materials.

This brings me to my third key phrase: "stored in libraries or online databases." Despite the digital revolution, conducting a research project using data that other people have stored or gathered is more or less the same kind of activity that it was before. That is because the social situation is the same. You the researcher are an individual with a puzzle that interests you. You seek material relevant to that puzzle in a preexisting body of materials that is large and indefinite, but that may itself be organized, although in ways that are probably irrelevant to your puzzle. This body of materials may have custodians who facilitate access to it (e.g., librarians), but those custodians do not have any way of knowing what your puzzle is. The only real differences in the digital era are that physical libraries are smaller but well organized while the digital world is larger but unorganized. Other than that, the social situation of research is exactly the same.

As for the tools themselves, the main practical differences between physical tools and online tools are that the latter are (a) far more widely available and (b) of lower quality—in terms of accuracy, durability, and associated information. Everyone knows about the vastly increased access of the digital world, and it is a truly wonderful thing. The lowered quality is less known and less happy. Here is an example. My own first book, The System of Professions, was published in 1988. There is only one edition, and there is one card for that edition in my university's card catalog (now in the library basement). There are, however, seven separate title entries for it in World-Cat, and a whopping forty different titles for it in the Web of Science (WoS) citation listings. (There are various reasons for this, most having to do with data-entry processes.) To be sure, 80 percent of the citations in WoS are under the proper title. But for all its many virtues, WoS is not close to being perfectly accurate. So there's an upside and a downside to both physical and digital tools.

The dual situation between electronic and physical materials will persist for a long time. There are expense arguments on both sides (books require large buildings, but digital science journals gobble up library budgets). There are access arguments on both sides (digital format permits faster, wider, and cheaper access, but for many kinds of materials there is no viable business plan for digitization). Even at the user level, there are arguments on both sides. Online sources are staggeringly fast for some tasks. They allow some things never before possible. They broaden access immeasurably. But they are of low quality by traditional standards, and they strip out much peripheral information that is essential to library research practice. On the other hand, physical sources (or physical sources with an untransformed online presence—online catalogs, for example) are generally of very high quality. They are rich in the peripheral cues that are crucial to library research. But they are slow for some purposes, and some kinds of searches are impossible within them. Given the two sides, it is no surprise that good scholars shift back and forth between physical and electronic tools all the time. So you must get used to functioning in both worlds.

This then is a manual about doing a research project in preexisting materials, a task for which I shall hereafter use the shorthand phrase "library research," even though nearly all research in found materials involves use of both physical and online materials. These days, most libraries provide much or most of their material through online licensing, so the word "library" covers physical and digital materials in most young people's minds (so my students tell me). The alternative (but probably more correct) term—"found-data research"—just seems too ugly. So we simply have to remember that "library research" does not mean research only in physical resources.

Examples of library projects are library-based term papers, theses, dissertations, articles, monographs, and so on. Of course, there are also "background papers" based on library and online materials, a common genre in the government and nonprofit worlds. But I am not interested in such things. I am writing about research projects that will produce the classic research output: a text answering a particular question or questions.

2. The Nonlinearity of Library Work

The first fact about library research projects is that they are not done in a strict order. You don't start with a general question, focus that into particular questions, then specify the data you need, gather the data, analyze it, and finally write up the result. The natural scientists proceed that way, or at least claim that they do. But in library research, that approach is a certain recipe for failure. Quite the contrary, you will be doing many different kinds of things at once. Only at write-up time will you cast the project into the classical rhetorical form: general questions leading to specific questions leading to analysis and finally to conclusions. You have no doubt read many library-based books and articles. None of them was researched in the write-up order.

Figure 1 gives a loose view of the time spent on the actual tasks of a typical library research project. There are seven tasks you do at some point: design, bibliography, scanning and materials search, reading, maintaining files, analyzing retrieved material, and writing. As the figure shows, you will be doing all seven of these most of the time. You will, for example, start writing things before you have a final, firm design. In fact, you won't have a final firm design until the very end of the project. This explains why most doctoral students write their dissertation's first chapter after writing everything else but the conclusion. You understand what you were trying to do only once you're done, not before.

That library research is not linear means that a textbook of library research cannot be linear. Because you are always doing many different research activities, you cannot read this book chapter by chapter, mastering one aspect of library research before you go on to the next. For example, you may have to reread the section on overviews whenever you need to do an overview of a new subarea, until you get used to doing overviews. You may have to read and reread the sections on indexing and browsing because these tasks come up again and again in the course of a project.

I have tried to deal with this nonlinearity by going over the basic trajectory of a library research project three times, each time with increasing detail. I give an overview in the next three sections of this chapter. I then present a chapter-length summary in the various sections of chapter 4. And finally I cover the midphase version of each task in detailed task-chapters from chapter 5 to chapter 11. That way you can learn partial versions of basic skills before moving to the next level.

As this "three-times-through" logic implies, then, the book is not to be read straight through. If you do that, it will seem sometimes too detailed, sometimes too vague, never fully organized. That's partly because learning is itself nonlinear. But it is also because the book has to serve many different levels of readers. Some readers know a good deal about physical libraries. Others know nothing. Some readers know one part of the online world. Others know another. Some readers have done serious research before. Others have not. Some are writing course papers, others master's papers, others dissertations. So there have to be simple definitions and explicit explanations for some, but also much more complicated definitions and explanations for others. It may seem strange that chapter 3 explains what "the stacks" are but also explains the financial complexities of EBSCO's thesauruses. That's because some readers need one, while other readers need the other. We should remember that although library research is basically something we do as individuals, it is also something we do alongside other individuals. Each research project relies on prior projects, and all of us rely on the continuous replenishment of our ranks by new and untried scholars. The multiple levels of the book should remind us of that.

Finally, I have tried to explain most terms when they first arise. But if you get lost, there is a detailed glossary at the end of the book.

3. Preliminary

In the preliminary phase, you get started. Note that I don't say that "in the preliminary phase you figure out what you are going to do." You think you figure out what you are going to do. But of course this first guess is only a stab in the dark. You will probably end up doing something quite different. Yet if you wait till you have "really" figured out what you are going to do, you will never get started.

You will do five activities in the preliminary phase. First, you will do design work. Although your plan will change steadily throughout the project, you must start somewhere, and in the preliminary phase, you make your first guess about your design. This means shaping a vague interest into some puzzles and some focused research questions. I am speaking quite literally here: you need one or two clear empirical questions, one or two clear theoretical ideas backing up those empirical questions, and four or five general research questions. Once you have shaped these things into a good three-or-four-page document, you are ready to launch into the midphase of the project. (This will take four or five iterations.)

Producing this design of course requires that you do other things as well. First, you will need to do bibliographical work. Bibliography in the preliminary phase doesn't mean going to Google Scholar and typing in some words relevant to your project. You can do that if you want, but you will get such a big list of material that you will suddenly feel that everything possible has been done already. Your real job in preliminary bibliography is to bypass that needle-in-a-haystack situation and go straight to the needle shop. (Specific advice on that comes later.)

Getting to the needle shop also involves a second activity—browsing and scanning (by eye). Since most of what you find with even the best bibliographical tools will not be useful, you have to scan materials quickly to locate the most useful sources. Note that the usefulness of a given source item isn't a preestablished fact. It is usefulness relative to your project that interests you. Something can be useful to you but worthless to someone else—and vice versa. This is why you have to consider continuously both (a) what your project is about (because that defines whether something you've just scanned is useful) and also (b) what it could be about if you changed the project to one in which the apparently useless source would be useful.

Found material can be useful to you in two different ways. Some materials are primary. This means that with respect to your project they are data. These can be manuscripts, archives, documents, censuses, reports, and so on. By contrast, other material is secondary: it asks roughly the same questions as you do and uses the same kinds of data. Secondary material is other scholarship on your topic.

In the preliminary phase, you will be locating both primary and secondary sources and browsing/scanning them. But most of this work will be with secondary sources. The only reason for delving into primary sources in the preliminary phase is to ascertain whether the primary sources exist that will enable you to do the project as conceived. Obviously, if those sources don't exist, you will need to modify the design, shifting toward questions that can be answered with the primary materials that do exist.

All this means that the three activities of design, bibliography, and scanning/browsing have a particularly dynamic relationship in the preliminary phase. Research questions will be coming onto your list and going off your list with alarming rapidity. Even your basic empirical questions may be shifting.

You will also be doing some real reading in the preliminary phase. By "real reading," I mean reading whole texts at a thinking pace—spending a minute or more on each page. This needs to be active reading, fully concentrated on the text at hand. Think of such active reading as multitasking concentrated onto a single source. In the foreground you are parsing sentences; in the background you are putting those sentences into an understanding of the argument, posing questions to the text, noticing odd references and hints of related ideas and texts, and so on. You will also need to take reflective notes, either by marking up the text itself or by writing separate notes. Such reading is exhausting work and will require five minutes of focused relaxation for every twenty-five minutes of reading. It also requires absolute silence and lack of distraction: no music, no texting, no chatty companions, no distracting tabs, no notification sounds. Just one open window onscreen or one open book in your hand.

Via this background reading, you start passively learning the terms, the people, the events, the ideas, and the problems that pervade your project. You don't sit down and memorize them; you simply get used to seeing them. It is this passive learning that prepares you to browse effectively. Browsing does not work unless you have things in your head to browse for. And it is through the work of intensive background reading that you begin to learn those browsing "attractors," the newly familiar labels and names that will help you recognize a seemingly random piece of information as something that is worth pursuing.

Excerpted from "Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)" by Andrew Abbott. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Abbott. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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