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The Artisanal Approach to Research.

Recently, I had two intriguing conversations that caused me to rethink my assumptions about how skilled researchers start discovery efforts, as well as how they deepen their focused research in midstream. One was with a professor, and the other was with a post-doctoral fellow. Both took place in a cafe near the University of California-Berkeley (UC-Berkeley) campus. These researchers are confident in using a variety of research tools: legacy online services such as e-resources under license, newer services such as Google and its targeted products, and social media. But their research styles differ in intriguing ways. Library-sponsored databases, Google and other value-added search utilities, and social media offer a plethora of choices for enterprising searchers; these two friends enjoy the mix. This abundance of choice is also exciting for librarians. It opens new opportunities to offer support to scholars--no matter what their strategies. The approaches my friends have taken illustrate the new, artisanal approach that scholars now employ; because of this, it's worth taking a closer look at their likes and dislikes.

Googling Google Scholar

We have been Googling for decades. But as Alice Youmans, a longtime UC-Berkeley law librarian, once said to me, "The research tools change, but the search remains the same." I agree, but I also think that researchers now develop artisanal mashups of all-new resources alongside their longtime favorites. Moreover, I could tell that my colleagues now recognize the need for due diligence from the outset. This heightened awareness of the need for fact-checking was refreshing.

Google Scholar, in particular, poses a challenge for those who perform due diligence, and they are creating their own workarounds to retain confidence in what they discover. Many search first in Scholar and then check their work in digital libraries. Others do the opposite. My faculty friend starts in the trusted databases that cover his own disciplinary literature--whenever he isn't checking hit rates on his own articles on Scholar. The post-doc, who is studying Pacific Basin ethnography, uses Scholar to kick-start her creative thinking, as ethnography spans a dozen fields of study.

There are clear benefits to Scholar, whether it is the primary search tool or not. Discovering books, articles, and grey literature in a single search box is beguiling, and it also nudges users toward Scholar's advanced search capabilities. Links to cited articles and related subjects make Scholar seem all the more powerful. However, my faculty friend remains cautious. He knows it's not comprehensive from searching his own field of study in it. He dislikes that search criteria is hidden from view and has noticed that the quality of search results varies quite a bit. He wonders how often Scholar updates itself.

My ethnographer takes a different approach, starting with Scholar for every new question--and moving immediately to the reference lists at the end of peer-reviewed articles. As she studies the experience of Pacific Islanders, she may need to consult the literature of political science, linguistics, anthropology, public policy, and more. The time-savings are substantial. It is only at the point of the second draft that library digital resources come into play. However, this is a significant step: Our compendium of databases and repositories is her fact-checking tool. So you might say that both academics enjoy using Scholar, but they are careful to test its limits.

I found that my role in these conversations was to keep quiet--and keep them talking. It was only later that my own thoughts came into focus.

Scholar Boosts Library Resources

Database vendors get quite a few things right. They provide bibliographic granularity that saves time and make explicit links to sophisticated metadata systems (such as Library of Congress subject tags). My scientist friend learned this early on, so Scholar is primarily an addition to the terra firma of structured access. Conversely, the post-doc favors Scholar, finding lists of references and article links online and taking it from there. Over time, she noticed how metadata schemas transfer across disciplines. This was a welcome discovery and improved her search results, but it did not rearrange her routine.

It is the artisanal nature of discovery that these two conversations place in bold relief. There is no single pathway to research success; Scholar's speed and reach are not perfect but are clearly helpful. In contrast, the library's digital offerings are a foundation--indeed, a fact-checking service--that provides a foil to the black-box metasearch that Scholar offers. Library resources also provide a smooth gateway to the canonical literature that every discipline defines as required reading.

My years of reference experience confirm that we are always learning new ways to discover answers, no matter which side of the desk we're on. But one of the best tools for searchers is also one of humanity's oldest pastimes--talking to each other. Speed and granularity in searching are terrific, but who wouldn't enjoy touching base with a friend to find answers? Read on for my take on how social media is shaping the search process.

Digital Conversations: Simplicity Is Powerful

Ever since social forums became popular--which I date to the launch of The WELL, an early online discussion forum--information professionals have been speculating about the social life of online users and the artifacts they seek. Xerox PARC's John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid wrote a seminal paper, "The Social Life of Documents," which asserts that as online life evolves, digital artifacts acquire their own identities and dynamic roles. This article appeared before Facebook, LinkedIn, or the Internet of Things became mainstream buzzwords--and yet, the authors' assertions remain sound (see First Monday 1:1, May 6, 1996; also Brown and Duguid, The Social Life of Information 2000). They point out that we are constantly traversing boundaries between static information and lively information. This process is changing how we perceive learning, community, and collaboration. And if anything, this evolution has only grown in importance during the 21st century.

Academics benefit greatly from digital conversations, and they will use any platform they like in search of community. Facebook, LinkedIn, and other powerhouses are popular, but simpler tools also find their way into artisanal research. For example, discipline-specific listservs are terse, but effective, friendly, and relevant to research. However, not everyone sees them in this light. "Listservs are 1980s-era technology. Expert networks are the way to go," grumbled one programmer I know--and that's a good point. But in scholarship, the goal is not chatting, but learning. Focused conversations matter. For this reason, my two friends certainly tolerate, and even enjoy, using Facebook or LinkedIn, but they do not see them as central to research. At the same time, they make open-ended queries on listservs in pursuit of articles and ideas--and to find out what's happening in current events. They do this because they expect a few (or a few dozen) replies that bear citations, referrals to friends of friends, and more.

In other words, listservs still work. They work because they perform the task of connecting people. The bells and whistles of elegant usability and design are tangential to the real work, which is to get information from trusted sources. Perhaps social media faces its own crucible of due diligence--at least in the academic sphere: the pragmatism of the artisanal researcher.

Unplugging: The Next Big Thing

Early- and mid-career professors navigate social media platforms with ease--when they wish to. But they are just as likely to unplug and step away from constant access to everybody and everything. Both of my researchers complained about the assault of the 24-hour news cycle, which so many of us seem to be glued to. Top news organizations such as The New York Times are reporting on the unplugging movement, even publishing articles that teach online junkies how to turn off their devices and live in the offline world.

I think faculty members have always had a leg up on this front, because they are aware of the consequences of time-wasting. My scientist friend constantly reminds students to balance their time online with quiet study, warning them to keep a critical eye on what they read online. I find it particularly intriguing that the post-doc fellow shares these sentiments, fact-checking online media and protecting her offline study from excess screen time.

The need for quiet study and in-person group work offers a window on the future of social media and its potential life span. This is a silent movement, but it is at odds with the corporate urge to get the full attention of users at any cost. That urge is still robust and inescapable in popular culture, but far less important among professionals and academics who rely on substantive communication for a living. It may well be that the next generation of artisanal researchers will trigger evolutionary change among the big social media players.

Interpreting the Discovery Process

Research and study can happen anywhere, and collegial time spent in cafes can feel like field work for information professionals. It certainly did this past June, when I met my friends for coffee and conversation. Ultimately, I concluded that the library's traditional custodial and educational mandates have gained a new angle. When we encourage and empower the artisanal research styles of our users, we become partners in research across the full digital spectrum. Enterprising librarians are doing this with greater frequency--and good results. It is no longer enough to style ourselves as custodians of resources and teachers of access tools. We are becoming interpreters of the digital landscape, supporting a new era of artisanal research.

Library Director Emeritus for Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, University of California-Berkeley

Terence K. Huwe is library director emeritus for the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California-Berkeley. His email address is, and he blogs at
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Title Annotation:Building Digital Libraries
Author:Huwe, Terence K.
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Date:Sep 1, 2019

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