How not to do research

reference desk. quotations on libraries

Here are some posts from a thread on an email list I follow. I am deleting anything that could identify the particular libraries where the posters work, although they are clearly all academic libraries.


A scenario reported by one of my colleagues:  student sitting at a computer not 5 feet from the reference desk where said colleague is stationed. He’s been there for quite a while.  As his friends walk by, he asks them how to find something, how to do something.  Colleague asks repeatedly if he needs any help and is rejected every time.  Then he starts phoning friends IN THE LIBRARY to come over and help him.  One of these friends suggests he search the ever-popular JSTOR.  Colleague reminds him that JSTOR is an archive and there are no current articles contained therein.  The student says, that’s ok, I’m researching something that happened in the ’70’s.  [Bang forehead on desk here.]


I was helping somebody on IM who noted he knew nothing about libraries and he needed articles for his topic.  After quite a few exchanges with some ground gained, I suggested that if he continued to have problems, he was welcome to telephone me as well and I provided my number.  His answer came back shortly, he noted that he was in class.


[Unfortuantely, ignorance of libraries is not restricted to undergrads:]

In the past week I have had a master’s student and a doctoral student who both did not know they could look up books in our library in an [our] online catalog (the master’s student, first year, had a paper due and had not set foot in the library other than orientation — the doctoral student is at the writing stage with a
deadline approaching).

Needless to say, a lot of time was spent with them in person and on the phone for the catalog and databases.


So sadly true. I’m auditing a class in [university name deleted] SILS [= School of Information and Library Science] this semester, and one day a SILS Ph.D. student (3rd year, no less) in the class asked me about how to approach a particular assignment. I suggested going either to the local public library catalog or our library catalog in order to grab the data she would need (a call #). She asked if she did that by searching Google. As I showed her how to use our catalog, it became obvious that she had NEVER used the library’s online catalog. Now, this is a very bright woman, who happens to come from a corporate background and is on the IS track. But being on the IS track should not mean one is an LS idiot. I have to wonder what quality of research is being done by Ph.D. students (in lib/info sci!!!) who don’t know how to find information! (I also wonder what it says about IS education.)

As I wrote in an earlier post, everyone does research, not just college students. By research, I mean gathering and analyzing information in order to take some action. Writing a paper is but one possible action. Buying a car or a house or any other big expensive item also requires research. So does trying to understand more of a news story than the sound bites on TV.

These four stories exhibit people who should know better making some common research errors. Here are three big ones:

  1. Not paying attention to opportunities to learn about research tools. Surely every college requires some kind of library orientation. Graduate departments typically require courses in how to perform research in their disciplines. Of course, even before starting college, all of these people had to write papers even as early as elementary school that required finding information first. However people start doing research in third grade, they ought to develop more sophisticated competence as their education continues. Many otherwise bright and successful students obviously don’t bother. Perhaps they don’t pay any more attention elsewhere, either.
  2. Not seeking help early in the process. Internet search engines have made it very easy to find information, but researchers have to know whether they have found the right kind of information or enough information. This is not a new problem in the Internet era. Elementary students used to learn to gather information from encyclopedias. It was a shock to many to get to junior high school and be told not to get everything from the encyclopedia any more. Eventually, with a deadline approaching, people will recognize whether they have found what they need. If they have not found it, the sooner they recognize that fact, the more time they have to get help before desperation sets in.
  3. Not seeking or accepting help from appropriate people.  The kid in the first email astounds me, as it astounded at least two librarians at his institution. Not five feet from a person both willing and very well qualified to help him–the librarian stationed at the reference desk–he preferred to stop friends passing by or phone other friends. Did he seriously think he could get better help from them?

Here are some things to keep in mind in order to perform your research efficiently and productively:

  • Search engines, online databases (including the library catalog), and various print sources all require a somewhat different method of seeking information from them.
  • Your search engine results can be no better than the keywords you think of. Perform several different searches in order not to miss some important sites.
  • Database searching is less intuitive, but yields narrower and more useful results.
  • Information available through a database might not be available through a search engine at all (and vice versa).
  • Even with so much information available online, something in print may better for some purposes.
  • Librarians majored in looking it up. You do not bother them when you ask a question; you give them a chance to do their job by helping you search and find information more efficiently than you can on your own.
  • The job of a librarian includes helping you refine your question. With a well focused question, you actually have less information to hunt for. A narrow focus divides the necessary from the  irrelevant.
  • Librarians ask other librarians for help all the time.

Yeah, you can use my catalog: don’t forget the databases

In this blog I have tried in a number of different ways to explain and promote the uses of online library catalogs and other databases. Students and faculty at the University of Washington iSchool decided to promote their catalog a la Lady Gaga.  

Librarians have been sharing the video among themselves. Since The All-Purpose Guru hopes to reach out to library users and potential library users–and since that was the whole point of creating it in the first place–I offer it to my readers, librarians or not! Enjoy.

Especially for researchers: that means you!

library research
library research

Library computers

Research conjures up images of a scientist in his lab or a scholar toiling away in the library working on  his or her next tome.

That’s research, to be sure, but it can also be a college student writing a term paper.

For that matter, it can be finding out information about cars before heading to the dealership or checking out the classified ads.

What is research? It’s the systematic process of investigation of some subject of interest by gathering and analyzing information about it. Usually research results in some kind of action. Writing a report is one possible outcome. Deciding which cars to look at is another.

The first necessity for any kind of research is a question to investigate.

  • What is the best car I can buy with the money I have?
  • What do we need to tell our stockholders about how our business did over the past year?
  • How did an obscure man like Barack Obama (or Franklin Pierce, or Grover Cleveland, or Abraham Lincoln) become President?
  • What can I fix for supper with canned tuna that  I’m not already sick of?

The researcher therefore must first refine the question, at least in part to determine what he or she does not need to know. A  student on a tight budget does not need to waste time investigating expensive cars with fancy options.

Certain information must go into an annual report, but plenty of other information is totally irrelevant. So many things matter in the analysis of an election that the researcher must have a clear focus to avoid hunting for useless information.

Probably some time before the focus of more complicated questions becomes apparent, the researcher needs to begin to find information. Most people begin by searching on the Internet.

Always keep two questions in mind: Have I found reliable information? Have I found enough information for now?

I say “for now,” because for more complicated questions, you will need to seek more information to other aspects of the question. The first batch of information you find might well lead not to answering your question or part of it, but to clarifying your need for different kinds of information.

There are at least two different categories of information you will not be able to find free on the Internet. Much information, from magazine articles to specialized encyclopedias and scholarly journal articles, appears online only through proprietary databases. Still more appears only in print and has never been made available online.

For many purposes, a general interest database like EBSCO Premier or ProQuest may have exactly the right kind of information. Hundreds of other databases serve the needs of people looking for specialized information in biology or entrepreneurship or women’s and gender studies.

It’s even possible to read old newspapers online as more and more of them become digitized. But you can’t find any of these databases with a search engine, and they are too expensive for individuals to subscribe to them. You must visit a library that subscribes.

Libraries will also have some of the many books and periodicals that have never been digitized. Find them using the catalog. If your local library does not own something you want, you can get it through interlibrary loan.

And don’t forget to ask a librarian for help to clarify your question, or even to formulate a good strategy for using the search engine.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Nayu Kim

Ask your friendly librarian

In the early 1990s, my then 20-year-old step-son wanted to buy a used car. He found the choices and all of the questions he needed to answer overwhelming. I suggested he could get some good answers at the library, and he asked me to go with him.

We walked into the library and straight back to the reference desk. I asked the librarian what information they had on buying a used car, and she quickly handed me four books. I gave them to my son and showed him to the copier. He looked through them, copied several pages, and gave them back to me to return to the desk.

On the way back to the car, he said, “Thanks, man. I never could have done that by myself.” That was probably his first research project since his last high school paper. He had never visited the public library since he was a small child.

I thought it strange that the son of a school teacher who used the library a lot would not think of the library as a resource and would find the prospect of asking a question at the reference desk intimidating. I have since learned that his reluctance is not at all unusual.

Nowadays, of course, much information is online. Why go to the library when it’s so easy to get answers at home? But it’s not always easy to get answers at home. It’s not even easy to be sure what the question really is.

People need librarians just as much today as ever, and for the same reasons. Sometimes it takes a conversation to clarify just what our question is. Sometimes it takes someone with thorough understanding of a wide array of resources to find the best place to look for answers.

Nowadays, you don’t have to go to the library to talk with a librarian. Not only can you telephone, you can also chat online, or correspond by email or instant messaging.

If you do go to the library, and no one is talking with the librarian at the moment, he or she might be reading or doing some kind of paper work. Librarians do have other work besides answering patrons’ questions, but you are not interrupting if you go up and ask a question. They take work to the desk that can be quickly laid aside. Answering questions is their most important work while they’re at the desk.

So don’t be afraid. Most librarians are very friendly. They like answering questions. And if you’re wondering how to ask a librarian questions, help is just a click away.  

Online writing

Samuel Johnson wrote, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Plenty of bloggers are quite happy being blockheads by that definition. For the rest of us, the keys to success include writing a lot and publishing it in multiple places.

Since I started this blog in August 2009, I have written about 225 posts for three blogs and dozens of articles on other sites. Some content sites pay a flat fee in advance. No matter how successful an article is on those sites, the authors will receive no more money for their work.

Others have some kind of formula for paying according to how many times people read the article. Authors can make money from articles on these sites for months or years after they first appear, but cannot count on much immediate payoff. Other sites offer some combination of up-front and performance pay.

I have no idea how long such content sites have existed, but the average internet business is much newer than the average brick-and-mortar business. New businesses take time to get established, and many fail within a few years. A high percentage of internet content sites are new businesses.

My first inkling that I could make money writing online came last July, when I saw a television news segment about a local housewife who made money from writing on eHow. I signed up for it and eventually published 22 articles there.

Then, apparently bought out by another company, they suspended their writers compensation program. They will continue to pay as before for existing articles, but will accept new submissions only from writers approved by the parent company.

One other site that I wrote for started and collapsed while I was writing for eHow. Therefore I understand the need to write for a variety of sites, some that offer up-front payment and others that share ad revenue or otherwise pay for older articles as people continue to read them.

It’s not easy submitting regularly to multiple sites, but if I remember to count what I have put on three blogs along with other content sites, I have produced a lot of work over the past nine months or so. As I learn more and more about the business aspects, I see that I have put myself in a good position to start making good money.

So besides a lot of articles in a lot of places, the other keys to success in online writing include study and patience.