Just when you think you have something nailed down, turns out you were holding a cherry tomato and the nail just made the whole thing explode.
I’m constantly figuring out how to be a better librarian to the disciplines I serve. I have pretty deep knowledge of the ways of literary research, since that was my own field, but the rest of it I’m still figuring out. And recently, the Linguistics department (finally a department in its own right, here!) has been ramping up the research requirements, and my involvement in those requirements. Which is great! And I have a lot to learn.
Today, for example, I had a student coming to me for help with a paper for his phonology class. He’d come yesterday, too, and we’d found a tiny smattering of research on his topic, but nothing that seemed like viable material for the foundations of a paper. I gave him my speech about sometimes needing to broaden out the search to related topics and apply what he learned from them to his current topic. A speech which went over about a well as it ever does, which is to say, not very. In a compressed term, that kind of research takes more time than most students (or professors) leave room for. We both pledged to do some more digging and scheduled a follow-up meeting for today.
In between yesterday and today, I remembered something I’d heard years ago but never really understood: that linguistic descriptions of individual languages are more like ethnographies than studies as far as the position they have in the field goes. They’re done once, and then that’s done. People propose tweaks, examine implications, explain why patterns exist the way they do, but a comprehensive description of Nepali phonology? That probably won’t get redone even once a half century. Like ethnography, the description from the 50s and 60s is probably still the description, no matter its gaps and flaws. Today we found him a whole collection of sources, now that we both knew to look for older things and to look for books.
And that’s where I find Linguistics research interesting, taken as a whole. On the one hand, it’s got a foot in ethnography, where the publication date hardly matters when deciding if the thing in hand is valid for study and citing. On the other hand, it’s got its foot in brain processing research, where publication matters a whole lot. When figuring out how people process and store words, imagine the difference between studies done before and after fMRI was prevalent. And that’s just the technology. What’s known about what, exactly, people see when they look at fMRI images is evolving day by day.
And yet again I remember the little “how to evaluate a source” check lists that I got in library school and how they are so terribly inadequate to describe the full scope of research values. In linguistics, date matters one moment, and not the next.