Embarking on an academic research does not go without the inevitable constitution of a bibliography. As far as I know, there’s no exception to this rule, regardless of whether the research in question is in hard sciences or in humanities, and regardless of the level you are at. In order for our work to be considered credible by our peers, we must inevitably learn about what has already been done, about all the research that preceded us. It’s not just to show that we know what’s out there, but to use it to advance our topic.
The bibliography of a researcher is therefore essential, important and even formative. However, many researchers, beginners or even sometimes the most experienced, encounter or have encountered difficulties in the elaboration of their own bibliography. While not everything is perfect for me, I have finally found a number of proven methods for me, and I will try to share them. Since this is a very broad subject, I will not make a long article that will take several hours to read, but divide the task into several articles, this one is the first.
Before you even think about reading, you have to find something to focus on. And if today it seems easy because the internet makes many things more accessible, it’s not yet won.
I think the first step is not to be afraid to listen to other researchers. Of course, consult the books recommended by your research director, but also by all the people you find inspiring and who work on a topic close to yours. Of course, their publications will need to be carefully analyzed to identify the books or articles that are relevant to your research.
When searching for something on a specific subject, especially when starting from scratch, I would be highly advised to use search engines and library catalogues (see National librairies’s), using the keywords of our search (article on how to find your keywords soon) to see what they propose. Yes, it can sometimes take half a day per catalogue to select all the books that may be interesting, but it’s necessary. At this point, I usually make a list of all the books I found relevant in my research (that doesn’t mean I’m going to read them all).
Then comes the deep excavation. That is to say that this time, starting from the already well-fleshed corpus, it’s a matter of searching for other relevant sources, which are found in the bibliographies of the resources already selected. It’s long, tedious, but it’s worth it. All the books you select at this stage ensure that you do not forget anything essential to your research, for example an article or a book that would have been centuries old and that would have been more or less forgotten.
Of course, you can always wander the shelves of the libraries you love, in a chivalrous quest to find the Grail of books. And, even if I practice this method myself on occasion, it’s more effective in specialized libraries, or if you really enjoy spending endless afternoons contemplating shelves of books, perhaps in vain.
I would like to point out that I think it’s also important not to neglect daily life in your search for interesting resources. The «pleasure» readings or academic ones, but which can be focused on another topic, can be nice surprises if you think about it with your subject in mind. As for the management of books to read, I created two different lists for myself: one with books that I absolutely want to read and that are waiting for me, and the other with books that could be interesting (if I find time, motivation, a flash of revelation, …).
Buy, borrow or read on site
It’s sometimes impossible to have this choice, because some books are only available on site in a library (part II of this series of articles will deal with note taking, etc.). However, in some cases, nothing stands in the way of on-site reading if the book is small, you have time ahead of you, and enjoy the library atmosphere.
Some people would tend to buy a book systematically, because it’s a pocket book, or it’s cheap. But, unless you want to encumber your home with useless books or have already read it, of course, I would strongly advise against it. Of course, if it’s a book that is close to yours, a reference book or a book that inspires you for your research, just borrowing it’s going to be frustrating. In that case, it’s better to buy it.
And in this case it can quickly happen that the purchase of so many books explodes your budget. But you must not be afraid of the used books. Apart from that, if a book you want is expensive, agree to waste time in used bookstores to save money, some books are sold here for 150€ and there for 15€, especially when they’re old, because some booksellers rarely consult the prices that are made elsewhere for all their items. If the book is rare, don’t hesitate to put alerts on book sales sites, post ads, or ask for it to be ordered, even if you have to wait longer.
Finally, choose to have a good relationship with your local bookseller rather than an impersonal relationship with an online sales site. In the long run, since your little bookseller will often see you with several half dozen books, he will be more likely to make reservations and/or orders for you. And if you are really polite and kind to him, after a few months seeing you regularly, he will be more tempted to give you a discount, while the big brands will never do it.
As for the quarrel between paper books and digital books, I would say that I’ve long been firmly opposed to digital books, by comfort and affection. Nevertheless, it seems to me indispensable today, as a researcher, to be open to both formats. Some resources are only available in digital format, they’re sometimes less expensive (or even free for some articles), and, especially for reference books, in which we often return, it’s sometimes nice to be able to consult the digital version while continuing to read a paper book. It also goes without saying that your research days will also go without about fifty open books, pages maintained by other books above, and the ground became invisible (yes because all this does not fit on a table), if you choose from time to time a few e-books…
I hope I was able to help you in this great enterprise which is finding resources (books, articles, etc.) in your research. Part II will focus on taking notes for the curious ones.
Good reading & see you soon!