Researching on the Cheap: Part 3 – Search Terms – The Great Mystery

Well, it isn’t really a mystery, but I have to admit that it can feel that way sometimes when you can’t find the information that you want. When we first started I told you that you needed to keep track of every search that you did and every search term that you used. Well, I want to emphasize how critical this is. You also need to be paying attention to the quality of the results that you are getting.

Let me give you an example. If you want to research Vikings, what should you search for? If you search for Vikings you will get some good sites, often museums or shops that are catering to sensationalist modern culture. You will also get advertisements for Minnesota Viking jewelry and a lot of junk. What other word could you use as a search term? How about Norse? How about Scandanavian? Don’t be afraid to use very specific terms – ancient Norwegian, ancient Copenhagen, Ribe, Hedeby…If you know any specific geographic locations where Viking artifacts or towns have been found, use them. Write down what you have used. Write down other ideas that you get from sites that you have visited.

One problem that you may encounter is words that have more than one meaning or are inaccurately named in popular culture, for instance, Viking Wire Weaving. Wire weaving was NOT invented by the Vikings. It existed long before the Vikings – the Egyptians were using it by 2500 BC. If you search for Viking Wire Weaving you will find some information. You can also search for wire weaving, or you can search for the technical name for wire weaving – trichinopoly. The problem with the word trichinopoly is that it is the name of a region of India that is known for its quality cigars, so you will have to scroll down farther to get past the cigars, but then you will get to serious metalworking sites. You also need to remember this term as a search term for looking through museum sites, but more about that later.

I mentioned the concept of getting ideas from the sites that you visit. For instance, if you find an artifact that you are interested in, consider tracking it down. Look for the location where it was found. Was it part of a hoard or a grave find? Where is it now? Is it in a museum? Does the museum have a digitized collection?

One of the basic problems of doing research is that you have to know something in order to get really good results. Read a couple of articles in order to get a better feel for what might be out there. Keep going through the pages of sites from your search, don’t give up after just what shows up on the first page. And use Google Scholar. Once you have an idea about what you are looking for, academic articles may provide you with a wealth of information.

Next time: Determining which Goodies are really GOOD.

Researching on the Cheap: Part 2 – Search Engines and Search Techniques

Last time we talked about being prepared to organize the materials that we find online. Now we need to talk about how we find those materials. In my original class outline this part was called “finding the goodies”.

In the old days, before the internet, I probably would have gone to an encyclopedia to do my initial research. The internet equivalent of the encyclopedia is Wikipedia. It is not the be all and end all authority, but it can be helpful when you really don’t know where to start your search. Sometimes you may even need to resort to a textbook in a public library. Why? Well, let me give you an example. I have been teaching this class for many years. Most of the people who take my class have at least a vague idea of what they want to learn about, and many come to class hoping for very specific recommendations. I schedule enough time for the class so that I have time to help individual students. But one year at Pennsic a gentleman came in the class who really didn’t know what he wanted to study. He thought that he might be interested in the 12th century, somewhere in Europe, but he wasn’t sure. What would I suggest he do? Borrow a European History textbook, and read it. See if there is something there that excites you; an event, a ruler, a natural disaster? If you really are totally clue free, you should try to find one in a book. Why a book? These sort of textbooks are usually designed to cram hundreds or thousands of years, into a few pages. They are a summary of events that should give you enough of an overview to get started.

The first internet information that you will need to have is which search engines to use. There are many search engines available, but some are better than others. Years ago my favorite search engine used to be Yahoo. It is still decent and I will use it sometimes, but my current search engine for starting my search is Google. That is where I do my initial research. If you have a favorite, and you are getting the results that you want, don’t be afraid to use it, but you may want to compare the results of more than one search engine, just to see the differences. We will talk about search terms later.

Once I have pretty much exhausted the information that I am getting on Google I will switch over to Google Scholar. This search engine is a whole different beast. It searches academic journals and sources for academic articles and references. Some of these articles are free and available as pdf downloads, and some are available online for a fee. Some public library systems and most college library systems have subscriptions to some of the special academic journal systems. An article usually comes with a significant summary, which will usually give you a very good idea of whether it is worth tracking down or not. There are also some systems that you have to register for, but the information is free for registered users.

Next time: Search Terms – The Great Mystery


English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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