Recently, I’ve had folks ask for my expertise in things like how to do research, how to find things online, and how to be an expert Googler. I have a few tips for web searching that I’ll share in the next post.
But really, your most important skill isn’t to search better…
It’s to think better.
Who has this information? Who can help you find it if it’s not online? Who’s selling false information, and why? Who’s slanting this? Where’s a good counter-perspective?
So before you get searching, ask yourself a few questions:
1. Who knows what I should be searching for?
When I was thinking of grad school and wanted to learn about people and economics, I didn’t start by researching grad school rankings. I started by Googling humans + economy and landed on Wikipedia’s economic anthropology page.
Once I learned that economic anthropology was a thing, I found the nearest university with a professor who listed this on their web page. Jeff Cohen replied to my email saying that he’d be happy to meet up. When we met, he realized that I’d be a good fit for his colleague Cynthia Werner, who does amazing research in Kazakhstan. And with Jeff’s referral, she got me funding for graduate work in anthropology.
The result? I got farther by finding something in common and talking to a professor, than I would have by looking up graduate rankings and choosing a program on that alone.
Sometimes, you’re not looking for an answer, as much as you’re looking for a person who can give you a good perspective on what to research next.
2. Who’s making money on this?
It’s frustrating to hit a paywall, because who wants to subscribe when you can get the milk for free? But information is our economy, and people build their livelihoods on it:
- Journalists need a salary to do in-depth reporting instead of clickbait.
- Your professor doesn’t get paid for articles, but does need them to stay employed and keep winning grants for her research.
- Website owners feed their families by selling access to business or consumer reports.
- And free search engines like Google face the same money imperative. They aren’t there to give you the best answers… but to sell your data and your eyeballs to advertisers.
And the librarian? Well, this librarian can share her perspective freely, but that’s because I have a stable publicly funded job. This lets me think of how to help you, and not just how to keep my head above water economically as I sell services to investors and advertisers.
3. Has someone already paid for me to access this?
So, if information costs money and time, but is necessary for all of us, how can you access it without paying crazy amounts for each article?
My first tip is to follow our collective tax dollars, and make the most of libraries.
At public libraries, you’ll get access to books, movies, and magazines on paper. But you can usually also access genealogical and business databases, consumer reports, ebooks, audiobooks, streaming video, and language learning apps online.
I’d advise you sign up with any public library that will let you; sometimes you have to reside in the community, but sometimes you can just be visiting. Failing that, ask a friend with a card to help you out. If you’re lucky, some libraries also have computers you can use to see databases without a card.
Academic libraries will let you browse books and newspapers in print, and they may have public-access computers to search articles online as well. Many of this stuff will never show in a Google Search, so it’s helpful to use a specialized database. But if you aren’t a student or professor, you’ll have trouble viewing their articles from home, as publishers won’t allow it.
The workaround? Make friends who have access to an academic library. Try searching for open versions of academic articles on Google Scholar. And there are other workarounds that I can’t in good conscience advise.**
4. Where can I find a librarian?
Most of all, libraries have librarians. Send an email, stop by the desk, chat through the library website, or call and leave a message.
Some states, like Washington, even fund 24/7 online chat with skilled research librarians. This is fabulous and all states should have it. I may have even put in a friend’s zip code once, to use their expertise when I was coming up short!
Sometimes you’ll get a librarian who’s burnt out or having a bad day, so try another one. As with teachers, pastors, therapists, and other similar folk, some librarians are more perceptive, skilled, or well-connected than others. But with over 130,000 librarians in America, there’s sure to be a good one near you!
(And as another tip, I can say as a librarian that there’s a sweet spot in the questions you send us:
- How tall is Kazakhstan’s famous Bayterek statue? You can ask this if you want, but you can also look it up online. If you can’t find a fact online, though, ask me!
- What are all the books published in the past ten years about witches? This was actually a great question for a librarian, because it was specific, interesting, and not easily answered with a Google search. We found a few databases and vendors who could help us triangulate and dig that information up.
- How does inequality affect social trust? That’s your research question, sweet pea. I’ll help you find books on inequality and social trust, and the conclusions are up to you.
I was looking for internet search strategies…
Sorry about that! I think we often try to just search Google harder, or more intensely. And sometimes stepping back and asking who we know, or where we could find out more about a topic, is a better strategy.
** Look, if you can get access to academic books and articles through your local university library–and you probably can–please do that. They’ve paid the publishers and authors on your behalf. But if you’re earning pennies in a village near the Taklamakan Desert, I realize you need to know that other options exist. I’ve heard from third world scholars who say they use personal connections, torrents, SciHub, #ICanHazPDF, DRM breakers, and Libgen.io to find books which don’t exist in their country, and which they need to make their communities better. Use it if you need it. But let’s all work for a future day when authors and publishers make a good living, libraries can afford many subscriptions, and everyone can read what they need to make the world a better place!