Monday, August 1, 2011

History's Detectives and the Way the World Searches

I haven't watched History's Detectives (on PBS),  in a while, so when I caught up on an episode the other night, I was struck by something I hadn't really noticed before.  For those of you who've not watched it (because you are not a history/anthropology geek like myself), History's Detectives is a sort of spin-off of Antiques Roadshow.    But instead of people bringing their stuff to the Roadshow for experts to tell them about it, the experts  come to people's houses to inspect the item, and take it away with them for a thorough investigation as to its history and meaning.

It's fun, if you like that sort of thing (which clearly, I do).  This time around, I particularly noticed how the beginning of the process of investigation was represented.  After taking the object away with them to their study/office, the expert sits down with their laptop, and immediately fires up Google.  When Wes Cowan was beginning his investigation of a WWII propaganda leaflet, he typed almost those precise words into the Google search box, and worked his way through the links that came up.  He actually said for the benefit of the camera, "I don't know anything about this," before he started Googling.

It looked just like what any student does when they are asked to write a paper about a given topic.  Or what a faculty member does when they want to have a general sense of what's being written about a topic before they teach a class on it, or write an article about it.

Here's what marked Mr. Cowan as an expert:  he didn't stop with the Google search.  He's not on this show to do televised Google searches.  He moved away from the general overview that Google searching could give him, and started reaching out to professional contacts, snowballing his sources until he'd found the answers his client was looking for.   He moved from secondary sources to primary source documents in the process, spoke to people who knew the artist who produced that particular pamphlet, and was capable at the end of all of that work of crafting a finely detailed story of the artifact in question.

Students writing papers have different goals, and how far they go beyond the Google search (or, a browse-type search on an academic library web page) is very much up to the kind of assignment.  If they are writing a five page essay, the post-Google process will look different from that which goes into a 10 or 20 page paper. There is no one perfect search, because all searches happen in a given context.  What may be sufficient for one assignment is woefully inadequate for another (and will be reflected in one's grade for that assignment!).

What does that mean for academic libraries, and those who work with students on their assignments?  It's more important than ever to get a grounded sense of why students are looking for information, not just the fact that they need information on "X."  The reference interview for a 5-page paper has compelling reasons to look different from one for the 10 page paper.

Demonstrating that we know the difference, and translating it into practice in the form of a reference interview gives us more credibility, and makes it more likely that students will come to us for help in the future.


  1. What struck me about your article is how a student can begin a search with Google and then dig deeper depending on the assignment. And for me, that's the important point: don't stop your search with Google (or Wikipedia, for that matter).

    How do we most effectively communicate this to students? I don't have a quick answer, but it's got me thinking. So thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  2. History Detectives is somewhat interesting and even amusing, but it often appears to me that a 5 minute segment is stretched to 15 or 20 with irrelevant goose chases.

  3. Douglas, that's interesting--I've always seen the "goose chases" as an integral part of research. It's possible that one thing students find frustrating about the kind of research that their professors are asking for doesn't have an answer in mind beforehand. It's possible that there is no simple answer. Or that the research you've done doesn't take you where you thought you would go.

    The challenge then is to write something anyway, or think about the next step given that you're not anywhere near where you thought you would be.

    In that sense, I think History's Detective is very representative of what research looks like.


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