Grazing and Digging: Research in the Digital Library

While I could rant and wail about the seemingly drastic decline in visits to neighbourhood libraries and the waning interest in ‘real’ books (remember, the ones made of trees?), I wanted to focus this post on mining for information online. Whether for strictly academic purposes or to prove a point in a heated argument about who starred in that obscure movie only you and one other friend watched, search engines and keystrokes have begun replacing bookshelves and highlighters in our quest for knowledge. In an increasingly crowded digital library, where do you start?

The ‘drink through a firehose’ metaphor is an apt description of the use of many different online mediums, including Twitter and other social media platforms. A quick search for “student development theory” on Google can net close to 40,000 results almost instantaneously, evoking the same overwhelming feeling. Too often, we rely heavily on Google and other search engines to do the thinking for us. What’s at the top of the page can get clicked on first merely due to it’s proximity, and the short one or two line preview underneath the link can take the place of an article abstract in deciding relevance and interest. In the interest of avoiding the work of digging deeply into the bog of results, we can instead graze through a select field of results.

The Internet has provided an amazing opportunity for access to untold quantities of information, but can still hold ideas, opinions and data of questionable quality. Like sweeping a beach with a metal detector, we may occasionally get lucky in a random search for knowledge, but the real work begins when that information is dug up and appraised. When reviewing information from your digital treasure hunt, how you do you separate the gold from the lead?

Although it seems like a strange catch-22, doing good research on the web means doing good research … on the web (or elsewhere). Grazing through a list of search results should actually be one of the last steps in your research process rather than your first. As with the pursuit of personal development, knowing thyself (and they research topic) is essential preparation for your digital research journey.  This could include reading other papers on the same or similar topics, or even reaching out to colleagues to appreciate a broader perspective on your chosen research focus.

The same tenant to ‘start with why’ that we often subscribe to when discussing missions, visions and learning outcomes is equally applicable to the research process.  The reason why you chose the research topic may be because it was given to you, but the reasons why you choose particular search terms and articles to review rely on good judgment and critical thought. Research before research may sound tedious, but the ‘why’ is just as important here as it is in designing a program, event or activity.

Remember that every word matters. When we teach communication skills, we often say it’s not just what you say but how you say it. In the research process, it’s not just what you search for but where you search for it and what you choose to search for. We have a privileged and timely opportunity in our access to a near infinite amount of knowledge. In mining for gold or grazing through the digital fields, we look for information that, when pieced together in new ways, can create new knowledge that is fed back into the virtual library. Perhaps the rule here is just as Golden: in our own work, create and share information we ourselves would want. Give unto others as we would like to (digitally) receive.

Lisa Endersby is the Manager, Student and Campus Life at Seneca College in Ontario, Canada. She is also working to connect and engage NASPA technology friends and fans in her role supporting Community Engagement in the NASPA Technology Community.


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