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Investments in the Term Economy

Search is all about term matching, and several times in the last couple of weeks I’ve had students think there was nothing on their topics simply because we hadn’t found the right terms yet. Once we’d dug enough to find some useful search terms, we uncovered previously hidden worlds of scholarship which could in turn point us toward related works as we ruthlessly mined them for even more terms, their bibliographies, and their “cited by” works.

Finding the right terms is hard. It takes empathy with the author, it takes some knowledge of the field, it takes some knowledge of related fields (particularly if you’re in an interdisciplinary database and can’t figure out why you’re getting chemistry results in your humanities search), and it usually just plain takes reading. Reading carefully and with an eye toward learning vocabulary. Reading lots. And there are very few shortcuts.

And then comes full text searching of historical documents (something I’m going to be teaching tomorrow). That’s another whole layer of complexity, and I really love what Timothy Burke had to say about that recently. He makes it clear that you really have to read, and read a lot, before you can start searching through historical texts, and he makes it clear that developing a familiarity with other rhetorics is vital to scholarship.

Searching sometimes feels like the modern way and browsing like the legacy way of doing research. But in some sense, search is impossible without a hefty dose of browsing.