Navigating the Infinite Database

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.


6 thoughts on “Navigating the Infinite Database”

  1. Your online secondary-source databases are (nearly) infinite, true, but you also have the enviable privilege of having a finite primary-source database in your backyard containing a great deal of what you need. Even beyond VT’s Special Collections, the state of Virginia is quite driveable. Have you considered seeing what is available in the Virginia Historical Society or any of the other state archives in Richmond?


    1. Yes, I’ve already started exploring the Library of Virginia’s online resources and combing through Virginia newspapers. If I do any research that requires me to drive through the state I won’t be doing that until this summer. Until then, I’m relying as much as I can on any online sources as possible.


  2. Expanding your research to the state of Virginia sounds like a great idea to me. Of course will make things more difficult, but it will certainly expand your audience and likely draw in the attention of folks interested in Virginia’s history. Perhaps after focusing on sources from VT you can determine the time and effort it would take to expand your search to the entire state, or maybe just the universities throughout Virginia?


    1. That’s the plan Chris. Comb through our archive here and online archives for the state picture. Then, if I decide that’s where I want to take my paper, spend the summer searching through archives in Virginia.


  3. I approach searches in much the same way, starting broad, and narrowing down from there. I would definitely look outside of Virginia Tech when looking at war mobilization efforts as VPI was still primarily a military school at the time. Looking at a school not as grounded in military affairs might give a different insight to those efforts


  4. First off, I want to compliment you on your creativity on your blog. You address each post as if someone is stumbling upon your page, while the rest of us seem to be responding with the class in mind. I think this is a great approach since that will allow you to use it as a resume builder at a later date by including the URL and letting them explore your work. You talk about your search terms and then say how you narrowed down your results, but how exactly did you refine yours? I’m curious because we have similar topics, and I think that if we make sure to exchange ‘trade secrets’ it will most likely benefit both of our projects. Also, the amount that you found about who was in involved at different levels (local, state, federal, etc.) really intrigues me. I’d be curious to see how that will transfer over to my own research on memorials.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s