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Tricks of the trade: research strategies for current political topics

Idea – by me

I thought I’d step back for a minute and talk a little bit about the strategies behind my recent work to find the source documents behind the news. If you’re a librarian or you make this kind of research a regular part of your life in some way, you probably know all this stuff and can probably give me awesome pointers for improvement (which I welcome!). If you haven’t done this stuff but would like to, here are some relatively simple strategies that I’m employing and that you can totally do too.

1) Use sources to find sources

Typing words into a search box might land you on what you need to know, but more often than not it’ll be insufficient or inefficient. Instead, I usually start by finding “pointing sources” that point me to the original sources. For my recent obsession with current events, here are the pointing sources I’ve used most often:

  • News reporting (yeah, yeah, I know, you can’t trust the news… but…)
    Unlike journalists, I don’t have access to meetings, briefings, long histories of covering a particular topic, and all the relationships journalists cultivate over time. So if I hear of a bill but can’t find it (because most state legislature websites are less than ideal, as are most government agency websites), I start with reporting on the topic in hopes of finding a bill sponsor’s name or keywords that might appear in the bill or (in rare instances) even a full citation. Then I can take that and go back to the less-than-ideal website and hunt with more chances of success. And when the less-than-ideal website really doesn’t function well at all (or maybe the FEC’s site search appears to be completely broken for things older than about 2007…) I use Google’s “search within site or domain” feature (available in advanced search or by typing site:[url part] at the end of your search) and/or other search operators to get around the less-than-ideal website’s crummy navigation and internal search options.
  • Citations
    Finding a report or study or even just a chart that cites its sources is probably the single best way to figure out who’s collecting, recording, and/or publishing the stuff you’re looking for. I’ve been using this especially for times when I see a chart that lays out, say, health care premiums by year, and then I go to the department cited as the originator of that data to see if they have more detailed information available, like premiums broken down by employer-provided vs government-provided vs personal plans. (This is also a good way to deal with uncertainty about the biases of whatever group or person authored the report or chart.)
  • Specialized search tools
    I have easy access to the paid resources of a pretty great library, and for my current obsession with political topics ProQuest Congressional, ProQuest Legislative Insight, and ProQuest Statistical Insight have been my go-to places of late. Then there are free tools like Congress.gov, FederalRegister.gov, Regulations.gov, Govtrack.us, Project Vote Smart,  and Follow the Money. And for information that may have been on the web at one point but isn’t any more, there’s the Way Back Machine (and its handy Chrome extension) or Google cache search.
  • Specialized People
    I consult with fellow librarians and other specialists all the time. A special shout-out to my colleague and GovDocs librarian Danya Leebaw! She has very kindly helped me think through where different official documents may or may not have been published, pointed me toward tools she uses all the time but that I had never touched before (like, a quarter of the tools I listed in the previous bullet point…), and generally been awesome as usual.

2) Don’t trust anything the first time

I’m not even talking about out-and-out fake news, here, though definitely be on the lookout for that from all quarters. I’m talking about real life lived among humans. There are plenty of reasons that the source you consult may not give you the whole or correct story:

  • Mistakes happen, even from the best sources, so don’t stop with the easiest source and assume it’s correct.
    Especially with current events topics, this can be especially true for a few reasons. The source documents are often very long and very complex, and it’s not unusual to find that the reporting on a document either didn’t provide all the information you needed from that document or (sometimes) even incorrectly interpreted it. Sometimes it’s just a typo, like when the White House version of an Executive Order mentioned a law that doesn’t exist, but the Federal Register version (more official) had everything right. But more often it’s a case of high-stakes telephone where one source reports on a document and then subsequent sources point to the first reporting source rather than going back to the primary document.
  • Facts are facts, but nobody pays attention to or presents all facts all the time.
    I don’t mean that people are deliberately hiding facts, necessarily, though sometimes it’s prudent to assume they are. But even without any attempt to hide anything, we’re all humans with limited time, attention, and memory. So if the humans you expected to have certain facts don’t, try different humans.
  • Facts generally need context.
    Sometimes kneeling on an Oval Office couch isn’t that big of a deal.
  • Projections and forecasts are not facts, so watch the methodologies.
    A recent op ed sheds some light on the vagaries of government forecasts for economic growth, for example.

3) Not all sources are available, and certainly not all are available online

I’ve started compiling a list of topics I’d love to find sources for but know that I probably can’t, or can’t yet. I’ve set myself the limit of finding things that are published, which automatically leaves out several categories of knowable things:

  • Private companies generally don’t have to tell you about their businesses
  • Tons of interesting stuff is classified or otherwise secret
  • Tons of non-secret stuff is simply not published, or not published publicly. I’ve been surprised by things like Congressional Research Service reports not being published except by 3rd parties, or Congressional hearings not being published for years, and that’s just the stuff that I figured should be publicly available.
  • Of the stuff that is published, lots of it is simply not accessible for my purposes. Sometimes it’s behind paywalls (I’m trying not to include those sources here), and often it’s just not digitally available at all.

Unfortunately, the hardest thing to do is prove that something doesn’t exist. This is where I circle back to Step 1 with special emphasis on consulting experts.

3 thoughts on “Tricks of the trade: research strategies for current political topics

  1. Pingback: Health Care Reform: The source documents behind the news – Pegasus Librarian

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