A faculty member asked if I could come to his class and teach him and his students to track down documents that they see referenced in their research. Some things they’re seeing are well cited, some things are just alluded to, and some things are decently well cited but they can’t find the text. What strategies and techniques do I use? Where do I look? Basically, what do I do every time he emails me and says “I’m looking for this publication but can’t find it” or “This person mentioned that there’s a study on x, how do I track that down.”
My initial thoughts were “This’ll be fun!” and also “I do this every day but I have no idea how to explain it in a coherent way.” It’s just something I do, and it’s never exactly the same twice in a row. But I decided to distill some of the strategies that I use most often, and then give the students a check-list of potential tools and strategies for their research area.
My Top 8 Strategies
1) Find out as soon as you can what kind of document you’re looking for.
Books and book-like-things (things that are formally published, generally all at once as a single entity) are findable in different ways than dissertations or periodicals or essays or websites or reports, etc. Different places collect information about different kinds of documents, they have different metadata associated with them, and basically if you can’t figure out this part the rest of it will be much, much harder.
2) Assume that key parts of the information you have about the document are wrong. A major early strategy is to find the best and most complete citation possible.
People misspell other people’s names all the time, or get the title wrong, or remember the wrong publication year. Similarly, scholars change their names all the time, or things get reprinted in various ways, sometimes with varying titles. Don’t even get me started on transliterations from non-Roman alphabets. (People are less likely to get the place of publication or publisher wrong because those are things you have to look up on the spot as you’re writing a citation, and they tend to have more standardized ways of being written down.) I can’t over-emphasize how useful it is to reframe your search from “I want to find this document” to “I want to find accurate publication information about this document.”
3) Use creative, “fuzzy” searching and browsing.
Pick out a few words that seem the least likely to be wrong and the most likely to be unique. Maybe choose the author’s last name (first names sometimes get truncated or left off entirely) and a key term or two from the title or topic. Maybe see if you can find everything by a particular author (maybe that author’s CV), or find everything on a topic published in a particular year by a particular publisher. Boolean operators, truncation, and nested search terms are more important in these searches than in a lot of other searching. For example, you can OR together alternate spellings or translations. Basically, figure out ways to give yourself a manageable list (tens, maybe hundreds, but not thousands) of things that could reasonably contain your thing, and then read through that list.
4) No single search tool works every time, and each tool has its strengths and weaknesses, so use multiple tools.
Google is amazing at free-text searching, and it’s HUGE, and it can do things like match up synonyms for you, or correct for spelling variations. It’s not great at letting you work with structured metadata or telling you what you actually have access to from your institution. Meanwhile, library systems don’t contain as many records (sometimes a pro, sometimes a con) and they aren’t as flexible about interpreting search terms, but they’re great at pulling together publications by discipline and/or providing access to structured metadata. And each library tool has its own advantage and disadvantage. So most of the time you’ll end up using multiple tools to track down an obscure document.
5) Always start out with the hope that you’ll find the thing in the most obvious place, but don’t get discouraged if it’s not there after all. (Or the second place, or the third… this is an iterative process)
Sometimes I second-guess myself and think “This thing is so obscure, I should start with a specialized search in a specialized place” only to find out that it would have come up immediately in a basic search of my library’s discovery tool. That said, some things only reveal themselves when you’ve worked your way through dozens of places and picked up bit of information along the way.
6) Tracking down a document is a team sport — ask your team mates and your librarian for help and ideas.
I do this every day, and I have a whole masters degree in exactly this, and I ask my colleagues for help and ideas all the time.
7) If you can’t find the thing, or can’t find it in English, or whatever
Can you find something like it that would help you accomplish your goals? Can you adjust your goals to mesh with the information you can access? Or can you use the non-English version somehow given what you know about the standard structures of most scholarship? Maybe you can find something you can use that cited the thing you can’t get/use and that built on that first thing in useful ways? In a pinch, if no other options are available, is secondary citation an option?
8) Remember to think about whether the document is actually the best document for your needs.
It’s a heady moment when you finally track down that obscure conference paper that you saw referenced as THE source for an idea in someone else’s paper. But is it actually THE source? Or is it just the source that that other scholar knew about? Don’t cite it just because you found it.
- For Everything
- Google (keeping in mind its search operators – and remember you’re looking for information about the thing as much as the thing itself)
- Wikipedia (especially for alternate spellings, related terms, citations)
- Internet Archive (kind of like google books, but a different set of digitized things, and not just books, from institutions as well as from individual people)
- LC Authorities (for alternate spellings/names for particular authors)
- Any other tool that lets you search through the full text of scholarship in your area (JSTOR, Project Muse, etc), so that you can find other scholars mentioning the thing you’re looking for.
- For Books and Book-like-things
- Your library’s catalog
- Google Books (especially for finding citations in scholarly works, or finding essays or reprints within compilations)
- WorldCat (especially for searching by publisher or publisher location, or for any books or book-like-things — it’s not great at non-roman letters, though. If things get really hairy the old FirstSearch interface allows some ultra-advanced options that are helpful)
- HathiTrust (added thanks to comments!) — especially for scans of out-of-copyright things, including really really old cool stuff.
- The national library of whatever country seems most relevant
- Publisher websites, researcher websites/CVs, academic department websites, etc
- For things published in periodicals
- Your library’s journal browse list
- Disciplinary research databases from relevant disciplines
- Google Scholar (especially for broad, fuzzy searching, or for cited reference searching)
- Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory (especially to find out where a periodical gets indexed for searching/browsing) – requires subscription
- For dissertations
- For reports and conference papers and the like
- Mostly Google, some disciplinary repositories or research databases… Often these aren’t actually publicly available, and when they are they can be difficult to track down.
For the topic these students were exploring, I put these tools into this long checklist of possibilities.
What about you?
Most of you are librarians — what are your go-to strategies for tracking down the documents your researchers are looking for?