Blog Post

Non-traditional research tools?

More and more, I've been using Amazon.com as a research tool. With books increasingly searchable, it makes sense to use such a commercial site to gain a quick overview of, say, the citations in a given book, or skim a table of contents to find out if the writing's pertinent to my needs.

Even more useful to me, though, is the ability to search for specific quotations in a work and have the page containing a phrase displayed. Say I want to know on what page, and in what context, Stephen Dedalus asks "Is this old wisdom?" Rather than thumbing through Ulysses around where I expect to find my quotation, I'll check if Amazon's "search inside" feature is up for my edition of the book.

I'm hoping digital libraries will have the same breadth as Amazon one day, and if that happens, I'll be happy to use their full-text searches instead. For now, though: does anyone do anything similar to my Amazon searching -- using non-research tools for research/critical writing purposes?

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2 comments

I can relate quite well to this blog post. I am constantly searching for ways to make my life easier using new technology. I worked at the Center for History and New Media when the first decent versions of zotero came out in 2007. I was working on a paper at the time and needed to add tons of citations at the last minute. I looked up all the books online and used the word add citation featue. It was a short paper (20 pages or so) but I think I literally cut down time wasted on adding and polishing footnotes (I always do it at the end) from 4 hours -> 30 minutes.

For historical research, I am always scouring the web for references to my research in wikipedia articles and google books (scholar). Even if I can't read the book online, I use if often to look up references. I can see who used another historian's research or arguments in his or her work, number of times a phrase appears in a book, etc. I once wanted to in how many disciplines a specific person's work had been used and in what context.

My latest attempt at using technology to benefit my research is a bit more complex and not yet easily feasible, although not far-fetched. I need to read a lot of Chinese documents quickly. Recently, when I'm trying to scour a website with lots of Chinese text on it, I use GoogleTranslate. True, the translations are not great, but they help me pick out words and phrases so I know right away what sections to skip and what sections to read closer. So I immediately thought, why not OCR and/or get all my research materals converted to text (mostly photocopies or PDFs of a standard, typeset font of articles not available in other digital format) and then run them through GoogleTranslate? Unfortunately, it seems like OCR is still not great for Chinese, but here's hoping in the future it will be!

I'd love to hear what other tools people are using to save themselves time and/or use the web for non-traditional research. Ive noticed just digging around can turn up very interesting and random things, such as the time I found a complete list (in PDF) of Chinese students who received PhDs at the University in Lyon in the 1920s, complete with their degree and dissertation title, randomly buried on the University's library website but accessible via google search.

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Thanks for your reply -- it's interesting to hear what other hacks learners are using. The fact that Google turned up something hidden in your university's library site is definitely an argument for better tagging!

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