It Started With a Blog – Tips from My Own Experience on How to Do Research

Pic: My trusty notebook, the evidence of everything I’ve been working on for the past several months

As exciting as research is, it can also be a little bit terrifying.  Research in grad school is not quite the same as research as an undergrad, and if you’re a brand new grad student you could definitely find yourself feeling a little lost as to where to even begin.  That’s certainly how I felt when I started my Masters, nearly 8 months ago.  And now, as I’m about to enter the final 4 months of my program (I’m in a 1-year program), it’s time for the culmination of all my research to take shape in the form of a thesis.  As I sit here and reflect (AKA procrastinate) on all the hard work I’ve been doing I’ve also been thinking about when I first started and how I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. So I’m going to give you some advice on how to do all the contextual research for your project, based on my journey of glass bead research.  Here it goes!

Before you Get Started:

Make sure you have permission to study your topic.  Chances are you’re working with material culture, quite possibly from a culture other than your own.  The first thing you need to do is make sure you’ve got permission from the rightful community to study their heritage.  This point I can’t stress enough.  Especially if you’re studying culturally sensitive materials (i.e. human remains and/or burial goods). And start with this right away as it could take some time to hear back.  I’m lucky that I already have a working partnership with the community from where the glass beads are from, so I knew who to talk to.  I wrote up a mini research proposal and sent it in and waited to hear back.  I also had to be flexible and understanding that the community may want me to change certain aspects of my project. Happily, I heard back from them with the official go-ahead on my project.  Not only that, but they’ve asked me to do more than I had actually proposed, including some additional work that I was both surprised by and excited by!

Talk to your supervisor.  Your supervisor is your guide through this entire process.  They’ve been around the block a few times and know what they’re doing, so you should definitely be communicating with them.  Plan your project together and never be afraid to ask more questions.

My whiteboard with my ‘key information’ on it and pics of what I’m actually studying

Figure out what works best for you for note-taking.  Do you like to take notes on a laptop?  Do you like to write them out in a notebook?  Do you prefer a more artistic approach?  You might have to try a few different things before you find your groove.  For me personally, I like to write my research notes with good old fashioned pen and paper.  Maybe it comes from doing field work not having a computer in the field with me. I also like to have a whiteboard handy that I can write out the key notes on and keep as a visual reminder.

Handling the Archaeological Materials

I’m not going to give you too much advice here because we’re all studying very different materials and subjecting them to very different analyses.  What I will say is DETAIL EVERYTHING!  More detail is better than not enough.  So record everything.  How were they found?  Depth?  Associated with other materials?  Size measurements?  Colours?  Special marks?  Any noticeable damage from excavation?  When I worked for the archaeology lab at UBC, part of my work involved digitizing Charles Borden’s field notes (for you Canadian archaeologists, I’m taking about THE Charles Borden).  He took insanely detailed notes.  Like, “As I excavated the 32nd flake in Unit D-3, at 11:02 am a train passed us by and 12 people waved while 2 said hello”.  You might not end up taking the materials back to your university with you so make sure you give yourself enough details to study from later.

Jumping Into the Research

Google.  When I first uncovered the glass beads in Garden Bay, I had never seen beads like them before (in an archaeological context).  I had no clue where to even start looking for information.  So I did what EVERY good researcher does and I Googled it.  I entered some keyword descriptions and, after wading through the results for sites selling beads, I finally came across a promising lead.  It was a blog for crafts, but the author had included some historical information within their post.  There were a few short paragraphs, with pictures of beads matching the Garden Bay beads, talking about Bohemian blown-glass beads.  That was my starting point.  I now had a direction to take my research.

JStor.  Following my new Google lead, my next stop was JStor.  JStor is definitely my favourite database for academic articles, and luckily most (if not all) universities will give you access to JStor.  JStor holds articles from an insane number of journals and you can find almost everything you’re looking for through there.  The small search return in JStor was my first indicator that these beads were rare and that this research was going to be a little more difficult than I had anticipated.  I had to find new avenues of research.

References Highlight
Scanning references for more references

Use the references cited in the articles.  Though there wasn’t a lot of information, JStor was still able to give me enough to get my research going.  What I found especially useful was browsing through the ‘references’ section of the articles I downloaded. There I found a wealth of avenues to explore.  If articles weren’t available in JStor I at least had the name of the journals that I could search through my school’s library system, or even back through trusty Google.  I also started to get an idea of specific researchers whose work I needed to pursue as they (or in this case only one person) were the only ones who had done significant research into Bohemian blown-glass beads.

Visit libraries.  Not all information is found in online journal articles and blogs.  I came across many books that I needed to use in my own research and I ended up spending a lot of time in libraries looking for them.  And not just my university’s libraries either.  I spent an afternoon in the library of the Royal Ontario Museum looking at some sources they had in their collections.  Scanning a library shelf is a lot like scanning the references cited section of an article.  Often surrounding the book you’re looking for are several books on similar topics.  Almost every time I walked into the libraries I walked out with more books than I had originally anticipated collecting.  So make sure to spend some time browsing your local libraries.

Don’t be afraid to email other researchers.  As I began to collect articles and books I started to notice that a lot of them gave me the bare minimum of useful information.  What they typically lacked was enough of a description for me to determine whether the beads in the article/book matched the style I had found in Garden Bay.  So I decided to email the authors, where I could.  And all were willing to respond to my questions.  I would send an email with my name, a brief description of my research, and why I was contacting them (i.e. the questions I had regarding their research).  Everyone replied and was willing to answer my questions, often with much more information that I had even thought to ask.  I ended up connecting with the editor of a beads journal who is also one of the experts in Canadian glass bead research and has been super helpful to a lot of my research.  I’ve also emailed several American archaeological report repositories for copies of reports they have in their collections, and luckily all have been willing to send them to me free of charge.

Beads L
The Beads-L website

Use online forums and digital museum collection databases. One email I got back from a researcher suggested I check out an online Google forum for bead researchers, called Beads-L.  While the site is open for the public to ask questions about beads, it’s also a great spot for researchers to ask each other questions and share information.  After joining the group I decided to write a post.  Knowing that the beads I’m studying are culturally sensitive, I didn’t post photos of them.  Instead I described them as well as I could and included a sketch of similar beads from a published article.  Within an afternoon I had several responses to my posting with suggested research avenues. One in particular was from a researcher from the Smithsonian Institute asking me to email him as he thought he had some information that could help me.  Sure enough he did, confirming another site in North America where this style of glass bead had been found.  Conversations with researchers on this website opened a lot of routes for me to take and in exploring each one I was able to find a lot of really relevant information.  Digital museum collection databases were also really useful in that they confirmed what I by this time knew – these beads are rare.  Browsing through all of the BC CRM reports also further confirmed this and told me that these beads have never been found in BC before.  In the case of museum and CRM databases, negative information was good information.

So there you have it.  My advice to you.  Because the glass beads I’ve been studying are so rare it’s been difficult to find information.  But through the tips and tricks I’ve outlined above, I’ve been able to make great strides in my research and now have a solid thesis, conference presentation, and hopeful publication ready to rock (all of which I’ll write about in a future blog post after the upcoming Canadian Archaeological Association conference).  Hopefully the advice I’ve suggested above will help you in your own research endeavors, and give you some strategies to think about.  Good luck!  And if you have any questions or want any suggestions, feel free to contact me!

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