This post got its inspirations from two places: first of all, from an intriguing exchange between Laura Rosenthal and Eleanor Shevlin on EMOB about the benefits (and perils) of “getting lost in the archives,” whether these were digital or paper-bound; the second bit of inspiration was from some emails I exchanged with CB, who is currently spending the summer at a research library with access to both special collections and ECCO items, with the knowledge that her home institution will provide neither when she returns from her research trip.
So what should the ECCO-less scholar do with the limited time and budget we all face when pursuing our research and writing projects?
Here are the suggestions I made to CB from my own experience, though I’d be interested to hear others speak about how they balanced the tradeoffs between print/manuscript and database time, especially when they were traveling off-site for access to both. I should also say that I always struggle with time management, but have found that when I follow these strategies I have the most success.
What follows is probably stunningly obvious to most people who have a lot of research experience, but I think there’s some value to making it explicit, to see if others find it useful (or wrongheaded), and to help me follow this advice more consistently.
- Before you go anywhere, start deciding your project parameters (chronologically, generically, authors, etc.) as far in advance as possible, so that you know what’s inside and outside your inquiry. If you’re not sure, decide it arbitrarily, to accumulate as complete a picture as you can, then make a conscious decision to revise on the basis of your results.
- When allotting your time to the databases, remember that ECCO keyword searches, when done broadly, produces lots of results that you can’t necessarily process during your limited library time. Save that time for the searches most directly relevant to your topic, and if necessary divide up the searching (chronologically, generically, by keyword, etc.) so that you are able to complete each segment and have your results in hand when done by the end of your visit. You can also send yourself results via email, which you can save and archive and analyze later, even if you cannot search remotely. Try to save everything to a key drive or email or both, then spend an hour or two afterwards every day sorting through the results to find patterns and plan the next day’s searches and potential items for closer analysis.
- Whenever I visit a research library, I always bring my laptop, and maintain internet connection so that I can access Googlebooks, the various catalogs, and my existing Zotero libraries. I have been using Zotero for some time to archive everything possible, whether primary or secondary texts, while I read and take notes in Zotero.
- When you are done with your trip, budget additional time to sift and sort the accumulated results to reflect on how they might direct further inquiries.
- When your traveling time is over, remember that there are tons of free web resources that will give you access or at least leads to appropriate primary texts: ESTC can allow you to keyword search titles and authors within chronological ranges; a good research library catalog will allow you to do the same with their ECCO holdings or Special Collections; Ben Pauley’s 18c Book Tracker, when coupled with Googlebooks, Internet Archive, and the Hathi trust, will allow some degree of full-text searching across and within texts, though searches there can be problematic, unpredictable, or both; finally, don’t discount the possibility of “reverse searching” full-texts of JSTOR, MUSE or other scholarly article databases for your keywords and seeing which primary texts turn up in discussion.
- Be alert to patterns as they emerge, and welcome serendipity.
In many ways, the ECCO database can lead you to believe that its results are comprehensive, but as Sayre Greenfield pointed out at the last ASECS Digital Archive panel, we need to be quite cautious in our interpretation of negative results, since negative results need to be confirmed across multiple searches and databases.
In other words, you’re always better off doing a variety of more limited searches within and across a variety of sources, even if some of these are available on the open web. Similarly, don’t discount the power of Google for turning up stuff in random library catalogs, rare bookseller sites, or scholarly documents. If you are careful with your keyword selection, you can pick up these kinds of things pretty easily.
Finally, here are some questions you could ask yourself:
- So what is the chronological, geographic, and generic scope of the project?
- Are there particular literary and non-literary discourses that need to be reflected in your sources?
- What kinds of sources would be best for answering your questions?
- Which masterworks could serve as key illustrations of your theme?
- Do you have a shortlist of authors who will be particularly important for your argument?
And so forth.
So lay out your boundaries, propose to yourself a workable segmentation of the topic for whatever time you have available, and don’t worry about not catching everything in a single search. Having a good reflective research process is much more important than having continuous access to ECCO, since your time will be broken up anyway, and you need to refine the topic and treatment as you go along.