Lookups, Searches & Research: A Lesson from Queen Anne's Revenge


Elizabeth Shown Mills

“There was not one aha moment,” said the spokesperson for the discovery of Blackbeard’s ship. “There was a collection of moments and a deduction based on the evidence.”

So it is with research.  Not so, with lookups and searches.

A fellow blogger, this week, challenged the instruction offered in our current QuickLesson, “Research Reports for Research Success.” In his view, when he helped a library patron find an item of interest, he did exactly what he should have done. Had he analyzed what his patron brought in, studied the strengths and shortcomings of the assumptions being presented to him, developed a work plan, and prepared a research report, he would—he said, with some hyperbole—still be working a week later.

He’s right—if we ignore the hyperbole. Especially is he right when it comes to librarians or library volunteers providing help to patrons who walk in the door. The library’s staff is there to help patrons find what they seek, as quickly as possible so that other patrons can be helped.

What the patron in this case expected was a lookup. That’s what the patron received.  But, no, a lookup is not research. It does not require a written analysis, a written work plan, or a written report of results. It may requires some prior knowledge that the requested information is likely to be in a certain source. But, by its nature, a lookup rarely carries with it a written track record of what has been consulted and why, what was combed with negative results or, even, what individuals or topics were “looked up” in that particular effort.

Searches are a bit of a bigger deal. As a rule, they cover a variety of materials. A records searcher, typically, will begin by creating a work list of relevant resources. Once those materials have been searched, that worklist serves as a search log—a permanent reminder of the sources that have already been combed for that person or a topic. For an ongoing project, that list of materials will be added to a cumulative search log. Searches, professionally made, will usually conclude with a written report of some sort and “next step” suggestions.

However ...

That work list, that log, and that effort to find relevant material on a name or a topic in that set of sources is a search. It’s not yet research.  To return to our Blackbeard’s ship analogy, a search often does yield aha! moments: records with direct evidence—statements of fact that unambiguously give us the information we seek. Of course, that information may not be accurate—in which case our search of multiple resources may have yielded conflicting information. That, too, can be an aha! moment, alerting us that we have a research problem we must address. Or that search may yield no direct evidence at all.

Of these three outcomes from a search: (a) direct evidence, (b) conflicting evidence, or (c) seemingly no evidence, b and c often create the point at which research begins. That’s the point at which we

  • critically analyze the results of this search (and any prior ones that have been made);
  • correlate the details of prior findings to discover all possible links between pieces of information and all patterns of similarity and dissimilarity;
  • define the issues that must be resolved; and
  • develop a work plan for addressing the problem—not just a work list, but a work plan that considers the methods and strategies to be applied as well as available sources.

Then, on the foundation of this prep work, we proceed to do research, following (more or less) the process and practices laid out in QuickLesson 20. In the end—in many, many, cases—that research process may yield the same results reported by the scholars who identified Blackbeard’s ship. “There was not one aha moment. There was a collection of moments and a deduction based on the evidence.”

Lookups, searches, and research—different processes, different approaches, and (usually) different outcomes.

As our parents, teachers, and mentors taught us: there is a time and a place for everything. Success in our efforts to recreate past lives and events call for knowing the time and the place for each tool and each method.

1. “Blackbeard’s Ship Confirmed off North Carolina,” National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/08/110829-blackbeard-shipwreck-pirates-archaeology-science/ : accessed 3 June 2015).

PHOTOCREDIT: Queen Anne's Revenge, 1710 sketch by unidentified artist, used under Wikimedia license at "Queen Anne's Revenge," Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Anne%27s_Revenge : accessed 3 June 2015).


Posted 4 June 2015