A simple Google search for World War I gives me over 477 million results. Adding the term “homefront” to the search cuts the results down to, in comparison, a more manageable 1.18 million results. Obviously simple Google searches yielding 1.18 million results won’t do for any kind of graduate thesis. Learning how to navigate today’s almost infinite database is a skill that every historian must develop. Though I already hold an undergraduate degree in history, graduate school is a place where aspiring historians not only challenge themselves, but also develop even greater skills in order to do history.
This week I used WorldCat to explore literature on my topic and experiment with searches to find increasingly relevant material. One of the great things about WorldCat is that users can conduct advanced searches relatively easily. A word or phrase can be entered and the user can tell the database to find the term in a category such as title or keyword. More complex searches can be conducted by adding additional search terms and categories in order to yield more specific results. Once a search has been completed WorldCat allows users to narrow their searches by language, format, libraries, authors, year, and topic. Such an ease of use and level of intricacy is hardly matched by other databases. Virginia Tech’s Summon has many similar facets, and it’s always the first database I turn to when conducting research. However, I must admit that Summon is actually fairly difficult to use if you have never used it before. Unlike WorldCat, Summon’s search features are a little harder to figure out, but I found that it still yields many similar and useful results. Google Books, however, is the database that I use most frequently to find books in the public domain. These can also be found in Summon and WorldCat, but Google Books is usually the fastest way to find the results and scan for material.
The way I tackled my searches was by starting broad and then narrowing the search parameters. Since my topic is situated in the United States during World War I I started by combining these two terms. Obviously the results were overwhelming, I then tried different searches by adding the terms “education” or “college” or “universities” or “Virginia” to yield more specific results. By narrowing down the searches I was able to find a wealth of more relevant materials, mainly articles and books. Part of me began thinking about expanding my thesis to look more outside of Virginia Tech to focus on the entire commonwealth. The amount of effort governments (federal, state, and local) and individuals mobilized the population for the war, in multiple ways, throughout the country is astounding. Virginia seems to be a good place to explore that mobilization with our proximity to Washington D.C., multiple military installations, a diverse group of colleges, and a large number of important volunteer organizations. This is a thought I’m going to explore further as I continue to complete secondary readings and delving deeper into Virginia Tech Special Collections.