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blog:search-techniques

Search Techniques

date: 2013-06-28 19:40

Note: A few years ago (around Fall 2010, I believe), I gave a very informal presentation to a reference class taught by Dr. Jenny Bossaller 1) at the University of Missouri. I had been doing some historical research and had been talking about the process with some of my professors, and so she asked me to come to her class and tell them about it and about the use of print sources. Here's a little bit of what I wrote in anticipation of that talk. I think of this as an exercise in search strategies 2).


I like to hear how scholars and researchers go about their daily professional lives: how they search for information, find it, store it, incorporate it into their own work, cite it, and so forth. How we professionally practice in such ways seems to be one of those things that nobody really tells you about, or that's not always passed on from one generation to the next, especially as new ways of doing things replace older ways. But I think these stories reveal insights into how researchers work and so the more we know about what others do and the more we reflect on how we conduct this kind of work, the better, I think, we'll be able to provide reference services.

By the way, Thomas Mann, an influential reference librarian at the Library of Congress 3), has written a couple of books on researching. He likes to throw in illustrative stories about how he's helped scholars in their work. The latest book, if you're interested, is The Oxford Guide to Library Research (2005). 4)

In light of this, I'm here today because I've been talking, with my professors and fellow students, about some research I'm conducting and the print sources I've been using to do it. The research is on the history of library automation. Professor Bossaller thought it would be nice if I shared the experience. I think it's her belief that my experience isn't unique – that many people who do in-depth research use many sources, including print. Perhaps you may or may not have the chance to really dig into a research project, but if you do, or if you help others that do, the hope is that stories like mine might be insightful.

Early in the spring semester of 2010 I was kicking around a few ideas for a research proposal I wanted to write. On my way home from class, I decided to head into the library, where I went to the stacks, specifically the Zs 5), which house books and journals related to librarianship and information science (among other things). While walking up and down the aisles, my eye caught a title of a book about Ellis Library 6), which is our library here at MU. It was written by a former University Librarian, Dr. Severance 7), sometime in the 30s or 40s I believe. When I saw that book, it clicked for me – I'd been tinkering with the idea of studying how academic libraries had gone about space planning and facility improvements. Since Ellis Library has had major renovations and additions since it opened in 1916, there I had it. Fortunately, this book mentioned some of that work, and I was off.

I went to the OPAC and searched for more information on Ellis Library, and specifically for anything on facility improvements, and couldn't find anything easily. That is, nothing really jumped out. So I went to the reference librarian and told him what I was doing. We talked for a bit and first he sent me to special collections and then to the University Archives. Special collections had some documents written about Ellis Library and by librarians who have worked there. The archives held much more. After leaving special collections, I met with one of the archivists and we spent about two hours discussing what was available. I was at first interested in looking at floor plans that might have been created throughout the last century. He gave me a lot more.

This all took place at the beginning of that semester, so before I left the archives I made an appointment to do more after the end of the semester. When the semester ended, I spent the first four weeks of the summer break, anywhere from two to four hours per day, at the Archives 8). The boxes and boxes 9) of material I went through included pictures, letters, departmental reports, university librarian reports to the President of the University, past histories written on the library, circulation studies, and more. The history of our library school is contained in these boxes.

I tossed out the library space planning and development idea and picked another one – Ralph H. Parker's role in the history of library automation. He was the Director of Libraries at Missouri from 1947 through 1969, and the material he left behind is quite voluminous.

But, I found a lot of great things:

  • Some photos from the 20s on bookmobiles
  • A recommendation letter written by Parker for Frederick Kilgour's OCLC job.
  • A letter written by Parker suggesting to someone who asked Parker if he knew any good “men” for a departmental head job. Parker replied that he didn't but he knew a good woman. I looked but I didn't see a reply to that letter.

One thing that really helped me was a letter I found written by a journal editor to Parker around 1961. The letter asked Parker for an automation article he promised. There was nothing about this article that I could find in the databases, but it was a clue and it led me back to the stacks and to the journal, which we had on the shelves. I searched through the table of contents of the journal's issues from 1961 through 1962 and found the article. That was a lot of fun to find it because the whole thing was based on a little clue I happened to come across going through the archives.

I eventually went back to the reference section. Going through some print indexes, I was able to find more articles by Parker. Many of these articles weren't listed in any of the online databases, either.

Plus, I found an ALA Bulletin published in the mid 1960s with a special issue on automation containing a bibliography of many if not most of the articles written on the subject up to that time. That Bulletin was probably online but finding the print version was fortunate. It contained a massive bibliography on library automation and many of the articles listed were in the stacks, just yards away. This was stuff I didn't see when I was doing online searches, and which I had thought I was doing thoroughly.


That's all I seem to have written for the talk. I did make some revisions just now, before posting. The Parker research finally came to a close three or so years after I started working on it. Historical research is hard work! But it was always a side project, too – something I was merely curious about and interested in doing.

  • categories:
    • research
    • reference
    • archives
blog/search-techniques.txt · Last modified: 2017/03/06 17:04 by seanburns