The process of research discovery - looking for and locating information - can seem daunting to anyone who isn’t familiar with it. To demystify the discovery phase, this post will shed a little light on the types of challenges and results one could expect during this part of research.
Archives, specialist libraries and other repositories have different types of access to their collections. More and more materials are being digitised and made available via online collections, which is great news for researchers who can’t visit in person. National repositories like the UK’s National Archives or Library and Archives Canada have made progress digitising and making materials available and they tend to pick collections that are copyright free and are the most commonly used. Genealogy is a popular type of research in archives and any records that help people trace their family’s history will stand a better chance of being digitised. This is the easiest way to access materials but not all materials are digital. More often than not, materials only exist in analogue form and must be used on site and in person.
Sometimes the large digitisation arrears in archives and specialist libraries are due to a lack of resources. Lack of time, expertise and funds are all barriers to digitising projects but not all materials are restricted by these challenges. Sometimes materials can’t be digitised. Either they’re too fragile or there isn’t permission to do so. For example, a family may deposit estate papers in an archive and part of that deposit’s conditions for use stipulate that no materials will be reproduced without the family’s permission.
The most important thing to keep in mind during the discovery phase is that answers are not guaranteed. No matter how interesting your topic or question might be, it could remain unresolved if there isn’t enough information to answer it. In other words, sometimes the result is no result.
It is possible that records, materials or other documents were never created. Maybe they weren’t saved. We are at the end of a chain of events that connect us with historical documents. Over time materials become fragile, materials are damaged and materials are lost so it’s fortunate that we have what we have.
What does this mean for your research? Has it all been a waste of time? No, a no result is valid, valuable and can shape the course of your research because it is just as important to know what you’re looking for as much as what you’re NOT. In these cases, the lack of evidence prompts another, more refined question. For example, you may have assumed a particular factor was fundamental to answering your query but the lack of evidence suggests something else entirely. You’re actually one step closer to an answer but it’s not necessarily the one you were expecting.
Just remember that the discovery phase is about exploring all the information options and will consider whether the information exists, where it is kept and how it can be accessed. Be patient, have an open mind and you never know what you’ll find out.