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Five Things No One Tells You About Library Research

A Small Sample

A random aisle in the UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library. It's about 240 feet (most of the length of a football field) from the camera to the windows at the far end, all filled with book shelves. That's one aisle, on one floor, of one library, in one university.

University libraries are really, REALLY big . . .

To paraphrase Douglas Adams: Research libraries are big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big they are. I mean, you may think the book store down the road has a lot of books, but that's just peanuts to libraries.

Think of it this way: every time you use an academic research library, you are delving into the collected knowledge of the entire human race. That's 5000 years of written material, by millions of authors using thousands of languages. Books and journals just scratch the surface. There are clay tablets, scrolls, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, microfilm, videos, sound recordings, and a plethora of digital formats. UCLA alone has over nine million volumes, but if you count all the things we can provide access to online or via interlibrary loan that jumps by orders of magnitude.

Not only is there a lot of stuff, it's growing by leaps and bounds every day. Academic publishing is on the rise, and new journals start up every year. There are whole new categories of information like hypertext and GIS. It's a jungle out there, often with few roads or signposts to guide your way.

. . . but they still don't have what you want.

And despite all that, there's a good chance no one has ever written an article or book on exactly your topic. Because the real world is even bigger, and there are only so many people actively researching and writing in any field. The more specific you get, the less chance there is that someone's collected the data you want or done the research before. Some real life examples:

  • Want to find articles about health concerns of Asian-Americans in the US? No problem. Want to find articles about vitamin C deficiency among Vietnamese-Americans in Tampa? Dream on. Just think of how many medical studies would have to be conducted to cover every medical condition in every ethnic group in every community!
  • Looking for a book analyzing the characters in Moby-Dick? Done. Literary analysis of Lord of the Rings? Ditto. A book that compares and contrasts characterization techniques in those two specific works? Don't make me laugh! Even if every person in the world with a Literature degree worked full-time writing such books, you'd never cover every possible combination.

That's not to say there's no info on those topics out there. Bits of applicable medical data might be buried in various public health databases or broader studies. And some scholars have certainly made passing comparisons to Moby-Dick while talking about Lord of the Rings, or vice versa. You're just not going to find a single, conveniently packaged and titled work that's exactly about your topic. Which puts you back in the position of finding pieces of needles (often re-used as parts of unrelated objects) in a world-sized haystack.

Result: Academic research takes time and work.

Basically, if you're doing library research, plan to spend a lot of time doing it. Expect to spend at least a few hours skimming through dozens of articles or books to find a couple that are useful. And depending on how obscure your topic is, "useful" may mean "tangentially mentions one aspect of my topic" rather than "combines everything I need to know about the topic in one convenient place."