You know you’re a real researcher when you learn how to use a microfilm reader. Reading and scanning documents minimized onto a tiny roll of film -who knew research could feel so retro and exciting? Our first foray into the world of microfilm was here at St. Olaf’s Rolvaag Library. Thankfully, we have a pretty spiffy computer application that makes reading and pdf-ing the films fairly easy. And, the film-reader itself was surprisingly adorable, whirring and chirping and squeaking away. If the musicological research process were turned into a Hollywood space epic (why not?), our microfilm reader would definitely be R2D2.

But besides getting to use cool technology, what does researching actually look like? Well, at the best of times, it’s involuntarily squeaking in delight when you’ve stumbled across an archived early-20th century map of the Caucuses you had no idea existed (is this relevant? who cares -it’s awesome!). Or finally locating that missing piece of information in some historic newspaper buried deep in a French online database, and pumping your arms victoriously in a cafe whose patrons don’t seem to share your enthusiasm.

The Research Hedgehog (aka the hedgehog from the 1975 Soviet animated film aptly named “Hedgehog in the Fog”)

Other times, researching can feel a lot like stumbling through a forest in the fog, picking up every interesting berry or acorn (because, who knows -they might be useful later?) until your arms are so full you start dropping things you’ve gathered, realizing you never found the berry you were really looking for, wondering why you were even in the forest anyway, and feeling a lot like this hedgehog:

Researching may involve group rants about the frustrations of transferring French accent symbols from Excel to ArcGIS, writing semi-relevant poetry, considering the merits of making Milhaud memes, and realizing that, while this is all rather therapeutic, you should probably take a break.

Planning and setting multiple short-term, obtainable goals can be an effective antidote to the feeling of stumbling through the vastness of research possibilities and information. Our research team uses Google Doc “journals” to set goals for the day, take notes, reflect on what we’ve found or didn’t find, and make plans for the next day. Perfection can be the enemy. Maps, spreadsheets, research notes (and even blog posts!) can always be refined and tinkered with, but sometimes it’s more important to move onto something else when an activity starts to bog down the research flow. We can always revise and fill in missing information, and sometimes the information or inspiration we need comes when we take a break or when we look for something else.

The kinds of sources we use can be roughly categorized like this:

  1.  Primary Sources (i.e. contemporaneous sources, including newspaper reviews, letters, manuscripts, audio and visual recordings, sketches, and maps)
  2.  Secondary Sources (e.g. edited/annotated scores, biographies, histories, journal articles, and maps)
  3. Tertiary Sources (e.g. encyclopedias, thematic catalogues, and bibliographies)

Often, the research process starts with a review of tertiary sources, but in practice research is rarely linear. Following leads involves a lot of zigging and zagging through bibliographies, newspapers, biographies, etc. This can result in new research questions, and can be quite fruitful (until that lost-in-a-foggy-forest feeling creeps in and you know it’s time to take a step back). For our research, New Grove and Oxford Art Online are particularly useful tertiary sources.

Primary sources are often a little harder to track down, but we’ve had success with InterLibrary Loan (having items from other libraries sent to us), as well as with online archives and databases. For anyone who is interested, here are a few online resources that we’ve found interesting and useful:

  1. (For French historic newspapers, magazines, maps, etc.)
  2. (For primary source documents, manuscripts, images, and recordings through European history)
  3. (A great lib guide with links to online archives and databases for dozens of European countries and their histories)
  4. (May not be accessible outside of a subscribing institution, but a great database for primary sources)
  5. (Part of the above database so may not be accessible outside of a subscribing institution, but a great database of manuscripts and artifacts from the “Long 19th Century”)