Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Wordcraft -- For research know-how, ask a librarian!

An online group is asking, how do I research historical novels? But it could be science fiction or biography, or anything I’m not familiar with. I was embarrassed to tell them I research the old fashioned way¾ with Google and a local library catalogue. Now, however, I’ve added a lot more cool research options, thanks to librarian Jeremy Brett of Texas A&M University, part of a trio of research librarians on call at last weekend’s ConDFW science fiction/fantasy convention in Dallas.

Brett was present with fellow panelists-librarians Frances May (a retired librarian from the University of North Texas in Denton, who teaches a course about fiction genres) and Stephanie Folse (web services librarian at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth), whose expertise let me add a lot more cool options to my research process.

Even in this digitized era, “I’m talking to more and more writers,” Brett said, “about science fiction as a genre for teaching about libraries, because the trope of libraries and librarians in the genre is so strong.”

From the fictional book mazes of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Ecco, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, libraries are still hotspots of fantasy and science fiction knowledge. And librarians are the hero guardians of these that knowledge.

Much of that knowledge is now online, at sites such as Google Scholar,
http://google.scholar.com/, which indexes scholarly literature across an array of disciplines, and WorldCat (www.worldcat.org/, the world’s largest library catalogue. “Google Scholar will sometimes try to sell you articles,” said Folse, but once you get a good title, you can Google it.” (Gasp!)

For more regional interests, there’s The Portal to Texas History (http://texashistory.unt.edu/), the Institute of Texan Cultures (www.texancultures.com/, or even the specialty collections of books and artifacts such as the Cushing Memorial Library & Archives. Cushing is the rare books and manuscripts repository at Texas A&M University where Brett works as Processing Archivist and curator of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection, the job description that brought him to a science fiction and fantasy convention in the first place.

A significant pitfall of online research is knowing what search terms to use. Who hasn’t typed what seems to be a great word into a search engine only to have it come up with hundreds or thousands or more pages? Google Scholar, among other search engines, can help locate the best search terms, and once you get those, as Folse said, “you get gold.”

That’s not the only problem digitization presents to researchers. No matter how often we hear that everything on the Internet is there to stay, sometimes it isn’t. Those dumb pictures posted on Facebook may outlive us, but not that wonderful webpage that was here yesterday and now seems gone forever.

Fortunately, even dead urls may be retrievable via options such as Internet Archive Wayback Machine, https://archive.org/web/web.php/, Archive-It Collections https://archive-it.org/public/all_collections/  for state agencies and organizations, or WebCite www.webcitation.org/archive/. The last two are more limited than the Wayback Machine in the references they can retrieve.

The biggest obstackle to online research though, is how much information has never been digitized. Putting information online takes money (and people), not only to scan items but to attach the metadata that makes them searchable. For tracking down those totally cool, desperately needed reference items that aren't online, there’s no option except an actual library.

Research libraries at all U.S. institutions which receive public funds (which includes even most private colleges and universities) are open to the public, the librarians said. Just contact them ahead of time to be sure your visit won’t conflict with their first priority of helping students and to be sure items in off-site storage are available during your visit. And for those unsure how to find any library? Just Google it.

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