Researching on the Cheap: Part 1 – Getting Started

This blog post is based on a class that “happened” because several people that I spoke with thought that I had been doing my research in museums in Scandinavia, when I had actually been doing most of it online. Friends and customers encouraged me to begin teaching a basic research class about eight years ago. The “Researching on the Cheap” name made sense because I was trying to help people with limited budgets do quality research without having to invest in extremely expensive books. Ironically enough, even if you have a nearly unlimited budget, there are still resources that are beyond physical reach.

The first thing that you need when researching online is a little bit of basic subject matter information – and a strategy. Let’s start with the strategy first. You will need to have a pad of paper and a pen or two.

Keep a written list of what search engine you used and what search terms you used – I prefer paper to an electronic record but you can use an electronic notepad if you want to. If you don’t do this, you will wind up repeating searches, wasting time, and probably becoming very frustrated. Worst of all, you will almost certainly find something, forget the search term, and spend hours trying to find it again. I know, I have done this before.

The second thing that you will do is create some sort of word processing files where you can stash any cool information that you find. In my experience, recording this information when you find it can be critical. Search engines are undergoing significant change in how they report information. Saving the information protects you from having the information disappear off of a site, or having the site disappear. With a little practice, you will learn how to save the information that you find into labeled files. You should save pictures as well as text and the url where you found it all. If you can’t grab the individual pictures you will need to know how to take a screen shot, edit it, and add the picture to your document file. It is your job to figure out how to do this with whatever type of computer you have. None of these tasks are difficult, but they critical to the success of your research.

As an example, imagine that I am searching for Roman artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art digital archives, but I come across a Viking piece that I like. I will have a file open for the Roman pieces that I find and when I find the Viking piece I will create a file for that material, too. Both files will have the fact that the artifacts are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the beginning of their information and then I will add the information about the artifact that I find into the correct file. The name of the file will be something obvious like “Roman Met” and “Viking Met”. Keep it simple so that you know what is in the file without having to open it. There are times when I am even more specific – sorting necklaces, bracelets, brooches, pendants, and rings into different files and cultures; all with an appropriate file name. You need to develop a file system that works for you. Folders, sub-folders, and file names can all be used to organize the materials that you find.

Next time: Search Engines and Search Techniques