October 9, 2014

What I learned at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center

I started going to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in the early 90's, after having a conversation with a colleague who encouraged me to write an article about a certain voice teacher. Of course, even though I had some idea of how to conduct research, I experienced a steep learning curve. Here are some of the things I learned along the way. 

  1. DETAILS MATTER. The more scholarly the enterprise, the more important this becomes. If you don't keep excellent records, you will waste an inordinate amount of time finding your way back through a thicket of information. Example: If you obtain a hard copy from microfilm, write down where it came from on the paper itself (ex: date, title, page, volume, journal, etc), then create a file determined by subject. The more organized you are, the better off you will be, especially if you have literary aspirations. 
  2. WIDEN YOUR VIEW. Let's say you are looking at a 1910 journal article about a famous voice teacher. Don't stop there. Take your time and look at the rest of the journal. What you find there may surprise you. However, if you zip in an out with a narrow view, you will miss that amazing bit of information that will set your hair on fire. Even if this only happens once or twice a year, it will be worth it. It's like panning for gold. You have to go through a lot of dirt. 
  3. USE A ZOOM LENS. This means learning to scan information quickly, looking for keywords, while letting the rest go. It's very much like listening to a particular instrument while hearing a symphony. The more your focus can zoom in and out, the more ground you can cover.
  4. CONNECT THE DOTS. Once you have amassed a certain amount of information, start looking for patterns within it. However, be careful not to create what isn't there. 
  5. ASK FOR HELP. Librarians are there to help you, and can make or break your search. Each has their expertise. Treat them with the utmost respect, even if they may not be able to help with your specific concern. As well, keep in mind that they aren't your personal valet. They are there to help you do the work. 
  6. KNOW YOUR DATABASES. When I first started digging around, Google was just getting going, and there was precious little to find there. While this has changed, you will find that the really important information is not online. You will have to find it using databases, old fashioned card files and books. Search terms are very important too. Knowing where and how to look for information is the name of the game. 
  7. BE METHODICAL. Once you know your resources, make a habit of going through them in a systematic fashion. This will help keep your view widened. Even if you think you won't find anything by doing so, do it anyway. You just never know. 
  8. BACK UP. If you have information stored on your computer, make it a habit to back it up. I make hardcopies of everything important and store it separately in file boxes. I mean: what happens when the lights go out?  
  9. USE YOUR INTUITION. I can't tell you the number of times I have discovered something important after having a gut feeling that I should go to the library, look at an interesting book, or return to a database with a new search term. There is an element of play involved in this: you know things are going well when you lose sense of time.  
  10. BE PERSISTENT. You have to keep showing up. It's as simple as that. You may search and search and search and find nothing, but eventually, if you keep at it, you will be rewarded, even if it takes years.

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