Researching then and now

This guest post is the outcome of an unexpectedly long tram ride with Professor Peter Downton, who works in the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University. Peter and I got talking about research education, specifically about doing a thesis before the internet was invented. I was fascinated by his stories and he kindly agreed to write a series of posts for the Whisperer. This first one reflects on the process of doing research then and now. Enjoy.

Once upon a time research, for me, entailed thumbing through variously grubby index cards in long thin drawers pulled forward from chests while standing with others in a library anteroom. One wrote the call number(s) thus found on a small piece of paper and then browsed the stacks for the book, or took the paper to a desk from whence someone pottered off into the far corners of the library to finally return and announce your book. Books were then to be read ensconced in a creaky timber chair with neatly spaced others at long timber tables under the darkened dome of the library. For me, there was (and is) something satisfyingly important about being in the physical presence of an older text, a volume bearing the history of use by other scholars before you in such an environment.

Readers made notes. There were no photocopiers. The Internet was decades away. This was not fast.

Later, I photocopied material from books or journals. Sometimes I was given photocopies of photocopies by fellow researchers. The ease of making photocopies led to a new joy: collecting them. There was a tendency to believe that something worthwhile had thus been achieved and that the content could be absorbed through osmotic proximity to the material.

This gentler pace still gave rise to a sense of being overwhelmed by vast quantities of material that might be important and should be ingested. I think it also gave rise to greater emphasis on digestion. Someone undertaking a doctorate at the same time as me was locally famous for reading only about six books. They were well-selected and extremely well read. In those times it was less evident that there was far, far too much material to be accessed. Fears of drowning in material, or horror of being unaware of important papers, were lively issues then as well as now. Perhaps I realised early the difficulty of getting to all the material within a lifetime. I became calm about this. If, realistically, I could not deal with everything, then it was useless to fret.

There is a considerable risk of reading too much, too thinly. The possibility of down loading vast quantities does not increase either the quality of what is collected or the richness of the reading of it. What is significant is the comprehension of the material and its usefulness for the project at hand. Understanding this is essential. Random quoting is unimpressive in a PhD (or anything else). As an examiner I react badly to texts peppered with quotes from the ‘right’ people for reasons that have not been made clear by the candidate – am I expected to be impressed by the subtle provocations, provide the linking thoughts myself, or be suspicious that the candidate has failed to think thoroughly?

Texts cry out to be read as you meander past them on library shelves. Amazon’s claim that others who bought a particular book also bought the following operates similarly. Serendipity and inefficiency are powerful tools. As I was fortunate to undertake a research masters degree on a scholarship, I had the luxury of spending bulk amounts of time reading inefficiently – in libraries, at home, and in cafes. I was not entirely indiscriminate in what I read, but I was intentionally ill-focussed. Some of the outlying works were found to be wonderfully useful in later years on other projects.

My early experiences covered various varieties of primary research: blowing dust from century-old historic records in a library basement, writing and administering questionnaires, statistical analysis of data on the sole computer in the University of Melbourne, designing new techniques for representing these findings, observing and notating people’s behaviour and surreptitiously photographing and filming them. (Ethics clearance had not been invented at that time.) For some of this research I was directing the Melbourne end of a project being conducted in a number of countries and led from Boston and Paris. It is charming to recall that communication was by air letter. Email, Skype, Twitter and The Cloud had not been born. At least ships and horses were no longer necessary.

There are obviously common themes in what I did then and have done more recently. One link between then and now is the requirement for a system for keeping track of the various bits of stuff you collect or produce. I have never been a notebook keeper – I scribble on available pieces of paper and hopefully disinter them from pockets and assemble them on my desk. Frequently, I find them after I have made use of the ideas. Sometimes I lament not finding them sooner. Some seem stale when found; some would have been exciting to include in prior writing. Over the years I have assembled arch files of material. I have made drawers full of folders in suspension files. I have fooled with various kinds of card systems including those with edge holes linked to key words that then fell from the pack when knitting-needle-like rods representing Boolean searches were inserted. My computers currently are fairly-well ordered. There are databases, bibliographic lists, folders of papers electronically obtained from the library while sitting at my desk or in a café. Every technique works if done properly. I have not seen a panacea that will deliver the goods despite the researcher’s sloppiness.

Whatever the technique, the need is to be orderly from the outset. I have supervised many part time students – in some instances through both a masters degree and a subsequent PhD. The total time between obtaining and using material exceeded 15 years in these instances. The storage and retrieval systems need to be orderly, robust and updated. For much of my supervision, the useful material is more difficult to deal with than words; it is visual, aural and often three-dimensional. Researchers have to develop ways that are suitable to their material if they are to effectively access and manipulate their collection of stuff.

While the toys have rapidly transformed over the decades, the issues for researchers have evolved more slowly. Many ways of working have been enhanced; the need to be thoughtful and thorough has not changed. Modes of distraction have multiplied, but if your concentration is shot you can be distracted by a fly, the need to tidy your workspace, or a mental replay of a less-than-comforting conversation from the previous night.

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12 thoughts on “Researching then and now

  1. That first paragraph still describes my experience of doing research in most Italian libraries! The experience there of being restricted to only four texts a day, while sometimes frustrating if none of them turn out to be useful, can be a good reminder to stop and read and absorb the texts or archives and not just collect them by photocopying or similar.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful description of how different things were Peter. My undergrad studies began in much the same way (eg. card style index in the library). I even remember booking the typewriters in the library to type up assignments although many I submitted were handwritten (and of course, this was acceptable at that time). I recently walked past my old UG library and was somewhat reassured by the fact that the same musty bookish smell remains. Perhaps some things don’t change all that much.

  3. This is really helpful as a part time PhD student who currently feels overwhelmed my material. In fact, I was just thinking about narrowing my focus somewhat and getting to some of those subtleties within the ‘key’ texts. Lots of food for thought, thankyou.

  4. The other day when I was pressing buttons to import citations to endnote I thought, I really admire anyone who did a PhD in pre-internet days. Thanks so much for this insight into how research used to be done and what we can learn from it.

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  6. Like Ian Robson, I feel relieved by the reminder that it’s just not possible to include everything, so it’s foolish to try.

    Regarding the inserting references in the pre internet days, I’m nearing the end of my final year of my PhD, and my supervisor reminded me to set aside a couple of weeks to sort out my contents pages and bibliographies. It took me a while to realise that he meant typing them out manually… I’m eternally grateful for auto-text fields!

  7. It’s worth remembering that for history PhD students even today research can often involve very old-fashioned techniques. It’s not unusual even now to be wading through piles of manuscript records that no-one else has ever looked at. Only a fraction of historic documents have been digitised, and it’s typically necessary to spend long periods of a history PhD in a historical archive, wading through the documents. Even when it comes to journal papers history papers are often not available in PDF form, so we can still be photocopying in the library. But email can make it a lot easier to get speedy answers to quick questions.

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  9. Maree, I started a PhD in pre-internet days. Ran out of time and funding, got professional training as a librarian, and realised 25 years later that I should have done a PhD. (2nd time lucky, but that’s another story!) I can add to Peter’s recollections the absolute horror of realising that one COULD NOT read someone else’s thesis short of (a) going to their university library or (b) getting hold of a microfilm. I loathe microfilms/fiches!

    Indeed, the sheer mass of historical texts now available online is a joy and a delight – I couldn’t have completed my second attempt without 24-hour access to this material.

    Typewriters? Oh, I was so proud of my manual portable typewriter! That made me technologically advanced compared to most of my peers. I went to classes and got typing qualifications after paying what seemed a fortune for my Master’s dissertation to be typed! But people with computers now can probably hardly imagine what it was like to draft things by hand – insertions, crossings-out and all.

    Word-counts? Count an average page and multiply it.

    Quotations amassed from copious reading would all be by hand – no question of keeping them electronically for appropriate insertion; and no EndNote or other system for keeping track of references. The sheer amount of duplication of labour is mind-boggling now!

    I could go on – but I must go and read something I downloaded earlier …

  10. A vastly underrated improvement to research is the capacity that various aids like Google Scholar provide for “search forward”. I remember sitting with huge tomes of citation indexes, filled with tiny entries in microscopic font, trying to trace who had subsequently cited a paper I was interested in. Now “cited by” does the trick in seconds. An author’s bibliography in the past gave relatively easy access to those sources your author was citing but it was impossible to go forward from the work easily without a trip to the library and some really laborious poring over citation indexes.

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