Working out how to get from Poitiers in France to my son’s graduation in Nottingham, I found myself treading a familiar research path. I’d always been able to dig info and knowledge out of the corners they were lurking in, but these abilities were honed into concrete skills when I was studying for my MA in history.
First, specify what you are looking for, i.e. set your parameters. This helps you drifting off into attractive, but distractive, places. If you find you are wandering off, make a note for another day, shut the door on it and swing your attention back to your prime task.
Secondly, do a general sweep of possible places to look and eliminate the areas that are completely unattainable/irrelevant. This focuses the search.
Thirdly, dig around for basic level info. You can use the much-maligned, but now much-improved, Wikipedia. Before you sneer, it can be a useful jumping-off place. Good articles also have a bibliography, references and further works to read. Have a look at sites like Amazon, the Book Depository, and your county library catalogues. Try also Googling a succinct expression – you’d be surprised what you get!
Fourthly, now you have narrowed down what you are looking for, go for the specialist websites, blogs and archives. You might have to start shelling out fees at this stage. Good ones will mention books, events, organisations to contact. And then set aside days to visit specialist libraries and archives – it’s always worth it!
And a last word on that – prepare your visit. Each time I went to the British Library (You have to join as a Reader beforehand), I ordered the books I wanted. This saved a lot of frustration, and meant I could get right down to work as soon as I arrived. Make an appointment with a named person when visiting foundations, universities, the BBC or big companies. Almost without exception they were wonderfully helpful.
Do let me know if you have any research trade secrets…