Finding Sources: Where to Look, and How to Decide What’s Worth Your Time

Pardon the pedanticism, but we’re going to start out with a little review. We’ll begin at a place that should look familiar to you: the New School Library‘s website. The New School is part of a consortium of schools — including NYU, the New York Academy of Art, Cooper Union — that share access to the BobCat catalog and to one another’s libraries. Start here in your search for books (remember them?) and multimedia materials (and check out the library’s tutorial videos).

Sure, you can check Google Books, too, but keep in mind that some publishers’ books are excluded, and Google rarely offers full copies of books. Typically, only those publications that are in the public domain are offered in-full. Sometimes, the book passages that are available on Google Books are sufficient for your needs, but other times, the Google excerpt might serve as a “teaser,” enticing you to locate a complete copy of the book elsewhere. The process I’m about to describe will help you do this.

Of course researchers in our field are often looking for audio-visual material. There’s obviously lots of material now available online, through YouTube, Vimeo, UbuWeb, the Internet Archive, etc., But again, not everything has been — or will be — digitized, so it’s important to know how to track down physical copies of materials. Fortunately, NYU has a fantastic audio-visual library, the Avery Fisher Center for Music and Media.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for on Bobcat, try one of the other libraries in New York — including the New York, Brooklyn, and Queens public libraries. If you’re not in New York — and I’m aware that many of you are not — try your local public and university library catalogs. And if you still can’t find it, try WorldCat and place a request through Interlibrary Loan. Materials loaned by another institution may take weeks to arrive — so it’s always best to start your resource search as early as possible so that you can build in time for material delivery.

Casting Your Net Wider

If you’re not already familiar with World Cat, you’ll be amazed by what a wonderful resource it is. It’s the “world’s largest network of library content and services,” connecting you to thousands of libraries around the world.

You can search for popular books, music CDs and videos—all of the physical items you’re used to getting from libraries. You can also discover many new kinds of digital content, such as downloadable audiobooks. You may also find article citations with links to their full text; authoritative research materials, such as documents and photos of local or historic significance; and digital versions of rare items that aren’t available to the public (WorldCat).

In order to make sure I’m conducting an exhaustive search for book resources relevant to a particular research project, I often visit WorldCat and try every keyword combination I can think of. If, for instance, I’m looking for books on music and architecture, I search for “music” + “architecture,” “music” + “space,” “sound” + “architecture,” “sound” + “space”…. You get the picture. Once I’ve collected a list of titles, I try to locate each of those titles in the catalogs listed above.

I also scan the bibliographies of books and articles that have proven useful, or that I’ve particularly enjoyed. Often, this is a great way to gather leads to hard-to-find primary sources and archival collections. In addition, if I’m reading a text and I’m particularly taken by a quotation or idea that the author attributes to someone else, I’m sure to locate the footnote, endnote, or bibliographic citation for the referenced work.

If I think I might want to buy a copy of a book, so I can mark it up, dog-ear it, make it mine, etc., I conduct further vetting by checking for excerpts on Google Books and looking for book reviews in academic journals, in one of the highly regarded book review journals (e.g., Choice, The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, Bookforum; sometimes — rarely — even Amazon reviews can be useful). Reviews in the aforementioned review periodicals are often comparative — the reviewer compares and contrasts two or more books on a particular topic — so I’m able to determine which books have the “cast” I’m looking for. In order to locate these and other book reviews, you can either search the review publications’ websites, search online periodicals databases (searching for the book’s title + “book review” in subject-specific databases), or search Google Scholar for the book title + “review”; this should reveal the location of various reviews in academic publications, and you can then track down the appropriate issues.

When I’m approaching a body of literature or a field of study that’s relatively new to me, and I don’t quite know where to begin, I often search syllabi posted online to see what texts faculty commonly assign for courses in those fields. For instance, if I wanted to find our more about contemporary feminist theory, about which I know very little, I’d try a few Google searches to locate syllabi that might offer some valuable leads. So, I’d search for “contemporary femin*” + “syllabus,” then maybe broaden out to “feminist theory” + “syllabus” to compile a list of books, articles, chapters, and web resources that faculty commonly assign in courses on contemporary feminism. I’ve found this technique particularly helpful because I can usually rely on my academic colleagues to have already screened these resources for me.

Colleagues, by the way, are excellent resources. Professors, librarians (don’t forget them!), co-workers, and fellow students are invariably chock-full of great reading recommendations, research leads, etc. This is why an “academic community” exists — so that we can share our knowledge and experience and, in the process, make a greater collective contribution to the field, and the world, than we could individually.

Finding Periodicals

Now, let’s switch gears from books to periodicals. For these materials, I usually start with Google Scholar. Once I find promising resources here, I search for them in the library’s electronic resources. If I know the particular periodicals I’m looking for, I search for the title in the “Books & More” field, to find which databases might contain full-text copies of these journals and magazines. Occasionally, there are no full-text copies of particular periodicals — which means that you need to check Bobcat to see if any consortium libraries hold the publication in hard-copy. Check the date ranges in the Bobcat catalogue entry to make sure the library holds the particular issue you’re after; if the article isn’t to be found in any local collections, you can request it via Interlibrary Loan, and you’ll be notified by Bobst Library when a pdf of your requested article is ready for download.

Remember that Google Scholar is not an exhaustive list of all scholarly publications. Nor do we know how Google’s algorithm chooses to highlight particular publications and bury others. As the Modern Language Association explained (in an article that’s no longer online, and is thus available only via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine),

…many important resources are not even indexed by Google: most of the rich, fee-based databases to which many academic libraries subscribe remain untouched and unavailable to Google‘s Web-crawling spiders. These databases, along with many others that are freely available, are known as “the Deep Web.” Although containing many trustworthy, well-edited, and scholarly resources, the Deep Web is frequently invisible to search engines. However valuable these resources may be, they are often difficult to access…

For these reasons, you also need to search subject-specific databases. On the library website’s “Databases” tab, you can click the “Browse Subjects” link to find a list of fields; “Media and Film Studies” and “Music” are most directly related to your work, but you’re likely to find media- and communication-related sources in lots of these subject categories — from “Anthropology” to “Gender and Sexuality Studies” to “Sociology.” Scroll down through the list of communication-related resources and read the “blurb” for each listing. Note the kinds of resources cataloged in each, the dates available — and which services offer full-text.

Here are a few resources of note: Communication Abstracts provides abstracts to an impressive list of journals relevant to our field. JStor and Project Muse offer access to full-text humanities and social science articles, and are particularly strong in their cultural studies offerings. ProQuest offers several services, including a database of dissertations and theses — two resources that should not be overlooked.

Searches + Reference Management

One great challenge is knowing what keywords to search for. It’s always best to try various keyword combinations to ensure that you’re being as inclusive as possible in your search. Work that’s relevant to your project won’t necessarily be framed the same way you intend to frame yours, and researchers may very well use terminology quite different than that which you’re using. Librarians can offer valuable help in your hunt for resources.

Also worth noting: through the “Databases” tab, you also have access to the whole Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive dictionary, which provides exhaustive definitions, etymological information, etc. Check out the “Visual Resources” tab for art, architecture, design, and photography resources, too.

Note also the library services listed across the bottom of the page; you can sign up here for workshops, tutorials, one-on-one research assistance, etc. And check out Refworks, a free, web-based citation management program. Some people prefer to maintain a local database (i.e., one housed on their own computers) of their bibliographic material; these folks often use EndNote, a useful but expensive program. Other programs — some open-source, some not; some focused solely on citation management, others incorporating file management, too — include Zotero and Mendeley. These web resources compare several available platforms.

But of course, not all knowledge is to be had through the New School Library’s website. The web’s full of excellent faculty and research institute websites, and a growing body of peer-reviewed online journals (e.g., the International Journal of Communication, First Monday, Invisible Culture, M/CAmodern).

It’s important to remember, though, that not all that has been digitized is worth knowing! It’s important to be able to assess the credibility of online sources so that you’re not caught basing your research hypothesis on something you read in some high school student’s blog. Cornell University identifies several criteria for evaluating web resources: authorship, publishing body, point of view or bias, referral to other sources, verifiability, and currency.

How might you assess the “cast” or “slant” of a media research website if you didn’t know of the hosting organization’s political or religious affiliation? The Breitbart News Network makes it easy for you. But what about The Weekly Standard, or The Wall Street Journal? Imagine you’re an international student, and you’re not aware of these publications’ reputations. Or, imagine yourself accessing online archives of foreign publications: how might you assess their objectivity?

Remember: It’s Not All on Google, and It’s Not All Digital

“Film Archives at the Cinematique”; via Katcha on Flickr 

I’ve said it before; I’ll say it again: it’s important to recognize that Google does not provide impartial, comprehensive access to all the world’s knowledge. As Alison J. Head and John Wihby write in the Chronicle of Higher Education,

…because our web experience will increasingly be personalized through algorithms that key off of everything from geolocation to our prior digital traces, students must learn to recognize the limits of their online environment and to seek information creatively outside of channels that serve up results skewed by Internet companies and other paternalistic, biased, or profit-driven gatekeepers.

Furthermore, not all that is worth knowing has been digitized! There is much to be said for the value of accessing — and handling — original materials. There are archival collections worth exploring and human resources worth tapping. The Whitney has its Andy Warhol Film Project and its research library; MoMA, its research library and circulating film and video library; and Electronic Arts Intermix, its collection of video art. And there are thousands more exciting, eclectic, but underused, collections out there (check out the Library of Congress’s list, Archive Finder, and Archive Grid). It takes a creative and resourceful researcher to seek out these sources — but such effort is invariably repaid many times over.

Commercial Media

I want to say a few words about researching with commercial media content. What if you want to track down cable tv shows or talk radio content that’s relevant to your proposed project. Where do you start? Well, the Paley Center for Media is a great place to start. You might also check the network’s or channel’s or station’s website; some offer extensive programming archives online. In other cases, you may have to contact the network’s librarian or archivist for help, and he or she may send you to the production company that made the content. You could also do a web search to determine the production company, and contact them directly. Check old tv listings or programming schedules to determine when things aired, so that you can use this information to help others help you to track down the material you’re looking for. As much as I wish there were, there’s no easy, foolproof way to go about this kind of “content hunt.” It’s a matter of following leads, and diligently following up. The contact people will vary between organizations, as will access policies.

Content is a commodity, which, unfortunately, means that you often have to pay (dearly!) for it. Yet the recent arrival of Critical Commons — “a non-profit advocacy coalition that supports the use of media for scholarship, research and teaching, providing resources, information and tools for scholars, students, educators and creators” — is incredibly promising. And don’t forget the Internet Archive, where you can find video, audio, software, even archived web content. See also, Stock Footage Online, ITN Archive, Getty Images and Getty’s Archive Films (see also Getty’s Rights & Clearances page).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *