Research: An Example

(from Secondary Sources)


Suppose I was researching "Indian home decor" (from India, not Native American).  
For the purposes of college research, my sources should be either of two different types:

1. Primary sources (info "right from the source," in this case from the Indian subcontinent).

2. Scholarly sources (stuff written by experts, professionals and scholars for experts, professionals and scholars).
First of all, since I know virtually nothing on the subject, I would have to go to a basic, popular website to familiarize myself.  Since I have already visited www.yahoo.co.in, I will go there and try their search engine. I enter "Home decor" and "India."
As usual, I get a zillion sources, most of which look to be ordinary American or British info.  Not useful. Boring, even. Then I see one with an Indian title: Vashtu Shashtra.  Aha!  That may be what I'm looking for--a traditional Indian philosophy of home decor!  I click on http://www.indiaparenting.com/homedecor/scienceinteriors/data/sci001.shtml and thankfully it's in English. It's full of fascinating info that I didn't know before, like "Vastu suggests the layout of the house, the placement of the furniture, the appropriate colour scheme for different rooms and the placement of water storage tanks or other storage systems."   
I print out this website, read it, and am now ready to do some heavier research.  I note that the phrase can be spelled two different ways: Vashtu Shashtra or Vastu Shastra (a frequent problem in languages that are not originally written with our alphabet). Now I go to www.google.co.in and click on the "Pages from India" button, and enter "Vastu Shastra" [the simplest spelling] in quote marks. 
I come up with 15,000+ sites, including some by architects (definitely scholarly!) and home builders (definitely trustworthy primary info!).  I also note that there is a third possible spelling: Vaastu Shastra.  I go into some of the most trustworthy-looking sites, and print out or save the text and addresses to my file. I make sure that I have the web address and date consulted for each source--without that, the info is totally useless for college research! 
My research is going VERY well, and I've only spent less than 30 minutes so far on it.
Now, I go to http://scholar.google.com and try "vastu shastra" and come up with 37 very scholarly sources, not all of them useful.
One of the best is the review of a book, Indian Architectural Theory: Contemporary Uses of Vastu Vidya, by Vibhuti Chakrabarti. The book is a text about contemporary Indian architectural and home decoration theory.  I decide I need it.  However, the UTEP Library doesn't have it (no surprise). So, I have to order it on Interlibrary Loan.  I do so immediately, since it may take a couple of weeks to arrive (this is the immense advantage of doing it now, rather than procrastinating until the last minute and ending up with a garbage paper).  
I also find a journal article that I decide I need, "The Design of Settlements in the Vaastu Shastras," by Amita Sinha, in the Journal of Cultural Geography, Vol. 17, 1998.  The Internet site, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&se=gglsc&d=5001503374&er=deny has a teaser  [Abstract] that says, "The architectural treatises of medieval India, the vaastu shastras, are based upon a metaphysical design philosophy which underlies the construction of furniture, vehicles, building details, buildings, and settlements." 
However the article is pay-per-view! No scholars in their right minds ever pay to view an article, and I know NEVER to rely on teasers for info, so I trot over to the Library, where they can either get me the journal itself so I can photocopy the article, find the full text of the article free online (since they subscribe to the Questia service), or order me a photocopy from another library.  If it's available there I have my article, and if not it takes a week or two to get (once again, why it's critical to do things in advance!)
Finally, just to see if there IS anything in the UTEP library, I consult NUGGET (the online catalog), for Vashtu Shastra, and come up empty. I also try the library databases catalog, but find nothing useful. 
So, I now have as many sources as I want (I'm actually doing this while writing this lesson!!!), and all that remains is the big part of the job:  to read, pour over, understand and annotate my sources, find useful quotes and data for my paper, and then start writing!  At the end of the process, I should be as much of an expert on traditional Indian home decor as anyone at UTEP (at least anyone who's not from over there), and should be able to sit down with the experts or with people from over there and discuss it without making a complete fool of myself. And the good thing is that it didn't take me a year (or a career) to accomplish.
Notes:  Please be aware that this research methodology might be very different from what you ordinarily do (just "Googling®" the subject is the worst possible way to do real scholarly research!!!), and may even be different from what you were taught to do before at UTEP. It all depends on your subject of research! If your subject is very ordinary, or if it has to do with local, Southwestern or border themes, your best bet is FIRST to go to the library.  However, here we are well aware that the UTEP library has very few resources on things Indian, so I left the library for last.  And, since we're looking for top-level scholarly and primary-source info, we didn't go for library databases that include things like Newsweek, Cosmo, Playboy or other popular sources.
Also, be aware that librarians report there are still serious problems with Scholar Google®.  However, until you are a grad student, that shouldn't really concern you. Use it, together with other sources, to find whatever trustworthy info you can.
Key Hints: 
1. If possible, choose some specialized aspect of your subject and focus on it. For instance, "Indian Home Decor" is very broad, but "Vastu Shastri" is a specialized aspect of the subject that you can actually learn about in depth in a reasonable amount of time, and produce an expert-level paper. Your biggest enemy in online research is not finding nothing, but rather finding way too much, most of which is popular-level stuff or even useless junk (student papers, blogs, etc.)
2. In your online web search, find the most specific, weirdest, most unique search terms you can that will meet your objectives.  If you stick to "Indian Home Decor" you'll still be there a week from now, wading through hundreds of thousands of irrelevant websites. If you find something tightly focused and strange, it instantly becomes WAY more manageable.
3. Use specialized search engines!  These are different depending on your topic. Ask your professor if you don't know the best specialized search engine in the discipline or subject you are researching.
4. Set a maximum time for research (so many hours online, or a cutoff date to finish finding sources). The only reason you should exceed it is if you haven't yet found enough useful sources (very rare!) or if there is some essential source that you know exists and you haven't yet managed to track it down.
5. Ask for help!  Your librarian is an information specialist, and does this for a living. And, she or he would be overjoyed to help.  So would most prof's. They're specialists in their subjects, and usually more than happy to see their students actually taking an active interest in their field.
Happy researching!
O.W.  9/06


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