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Introduction to library research in the arts: Learning from people

An introduction to research concepts and techniques for University of Redlands students in fine, literary and performing arts, developed as an Open Educational Resource (OER)

Learning objectives

  • Incorporate the perspectives of experts through published statements or original interviews.

The benefits of using people as sources

Students working on a research project often overlook the benefits of talking with experts as part of the information-seeking process.

  • Experts can present an overview of your problem area and help you understand the different perspectives on your topic.
  • Experts can bring to your attention new questions or considerations that you didn't know about.
  • Experts can recommend foundational sources to help you learn about your topic.

Former Librarian of Congress Thomas Mann observed that many students are intimidated to talk with experts, thinking they won't want to be bothered. Actually, people are often flattered that you value their expertise and will want to respond to a sincere and succinct request for help.

Discovering experts and their published statements

Following the other strategies discussed in this guide will help you obtain numerous scholarly sources on your topic. The authors of those sources have conducted research on these issues and understand them in depth - they are experts that you can follow more closely.

Run web searches and check social media to see if they have blogs or Twitter accounts where they discuss the significance of their research and provide more context on their published work. You may be able to find contact information for scholars through their social media, or a department webpage if they are affiliated with a college or university.

Journalists regularly interview the authors of newly published studies, especially when the research has broader public interest. You can discover blog and podcast interviews through web searching, or search in library databases to find interviews published in magazines and newspapers.

Here are some examples of published interviews.

Preparing to conduct an interview

If you have identified an expert with insight into your topic, but you cannot find their own statements or a published interview with them, you can try contacting them directly. This could take the form of a written email exchange, or an interactive conversation or interview over the phone, in person, or by web conference.

Thomas Mann devotes a chapter to interviewing sources in his book The Oxford Guide to Library Research. He says that journalists are used to using interviews to get information, but this strategy can work for any researcher when the situation calls for it.

Mann has several recommendations for how to gather information by talking with people:

  • Do background reading to address your research question, thoroughly understand the topic and the person you will be contacting.
  • Develop clear questions and a limited scope for what you are asking of your source.
  • When you contact your source, be honest and upfront about who you are, why you are asking them, what you already know and what you're trying to find out.
  • Respect your source's time and ownership over what they know. Be courteous and thank them in writing after your conversation.
  • Get recommendations for other people you could talk with, to expand your network and balance what you learned from this source.

Activity: Contacting a listserv

Another way to tap into conversations among scholars is to subscribe to an email listserv for a related discipline. Most disciplines and professional organizations have listservs that allow practitioners and scholars to discuss issues of concern, including research findings and how theory is applied in practice.

Subscribing to the listserv not only lets you listen in on these conversations, but also lets you search the conversation archive to see if your topic has been discussed in the past.

Here is an example of an actual post sent to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) listserv asking for research findings. The researcher received an enthusiastic response and many recommendations. Read over the post with my annotations. If you needed to ask a community of scholars or practitioners for advice on your research project, how could you improve upon this post?

Recommended reading

Here are some resources on interviewing and using people as sources during the research process:

Key points

  • Asking experts directly for information can help you understand your topic in more nuance and discover questions you didn't know to ask.
  • You can find authors' statements through social media and published interviews, or contact them directly.
  • Listservs are an excellent way to unobtrusively tap into scholarly conversations.