Not getting lost in databases

For me, database searching is like quicksand. I start out with good intentions and a research area in mind. I know, in general, what I’m looking for and what I’m hoping to find. Then, at some point, I enter the vortex and follow lead after lead until I can barely remember what database I started with and I have found a mountain of resources that threatens to overwhelm Zotero and crash my hard drive. With this in mind, I entered into this exercise with caution and with a renewed discipline; I needed to make the most of my time in an effective way.

Sadly, I can’t remember the last time I used World Cat. It was amazing. I found so many sources right in the VT library that my Addison and Summon searches hadn’t turned up. I focused on a few search terms: food history, food community, food identity, and combinations of those terms. It turned up quite a few books that I wish I had read last semester before trying to sketch out a historiography of food history! I enjoyed how World Cat simplified the act of searching, while still offering the ability for more advanced options.

Thinking that I perhaps underappreciate the oldies-but-goodies, I then turned to EBSCO Host. This experience wasn’t as awe-inspiring as that with World Cat. I wound up searching for food history, food culture, food studies, food + community, food community, food identity, cookbook, and cookbook history. None of these turned up more than 15 or so hits, which made me conclude that I was searching wrong. World Cat had offered pages of potentially related options, though it was never an overwhelming pile to sort through.

In both instances, I stuck to discipline—I refused to be sucked into the vortex. While it was a bit less exhilarating and exciting, it was a fruitful search. I think there’s a time and a place for both types of exploration, but I can certainly see a value in disciplined searching. It was also very interesting to see how topics are intertwined. It has been challenging to find sources on this topic because it frequently falls in either a more scientific or more cultural zone. These searches have helped me to see where these fields intersect and overlap, and where there is more potential for this to happen. All told, it was a useful exercise in both production of sources and as a learning experience!


Filed under Research Methods Assignment

7 Responses to Not getting lost in databases

  1. KJ

    I wonder what you’d come up with if you crossed women/woman and cookbook and history–seems like you will need a “history” filter at some point, tho maybe not yet. Also wondering if there’s a targeted database for early modern (in US it would be early Republic) history in England, something less general than Historical Abstracts (or is that what you meant by EBSCO Host?)

    • saraevenson

      Those are (of course) good thoughts, Dr. Jones. I’ll have to head back to World Cat later this week and see what comes up with those terms. I haven’t yet gone through targeted databases since I’m not sure if my research will focus more on early America or England–but I suppose there is no time like the present to begin exploring!

      • KJ

        Also found interesting your comment about finding both scientific and cultural sources. Makes me wonder if there might be some connection between cooking and the state of scientific inquiry in the era you’re interested in. By 20th century that’s certainly the case, so makes me curious about earlier time periods, particularly at a time when there is so much interest in scientific inquiry among “lay” people (I think of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin).

  2. Laura


    I enjoyed your quicksand metaphor and I will have to admit that I often struggle with that same feeling when I am sifting through multiple sources. I also find myself sticking to the VT library and Summons searches just to play it safe. World Cat, fortunately, is a useful way to step outside of our comfort zones. And as we become more acclimated to the world of research, I am sure it will become easier and even more efficient for us. I’m hoping that by the end of this semester (and by the time I graduate!) that I will be able to master World Cat, at least to some extent. In the meantime, we just have to remember that practice makes perfect!

    • saraevenson

      I agree–I enjoy the process of learning how to research, and am excited to continue to do so! The Pencek reading was so helpful in getting us on our way for the rest of our time here.

  3. davidatkins


    I think fifteen resources is a good results list if they are related to your topic. This number also helps you sort through these faster and determine if you did indeed “search wrong.” A good rule of thumb is to try to narrow and limit your results to under triple digits, otherwise the list may become too difficult to navigate. Use the advance search options and the date range, source type, etc. to refine the results. You can always go back and remove these if they limit your results too much. It is also a great idea to search outside of Summon. While this search says it provides resources from all databases and materials available through the library more often than not it leaves many out of the results. Like Laura said the more you practice with these search engines the better you will become at retrieving information sources relative to you queries!

    • Sara

      Thanks, David! I was thinking of you and your library skills as I was doing this. Don’t be surprised if I come haunt your office in the upcoming weeks trying to get tips.

Leave a Reply