Art Research
- Dr. Rex Koontz & Jon Evans
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Dr. Rex Koontz
Dr. Rex Koontz
Professor, Art History
University of Houston
Rex:
Hello. I'm Dr. Rex Koontz and I'm here with the Reference Librarian for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Jon Evans, and we're going to talk about how one does research on real art objects.

Jon, I have a particular object I must research in the museum collections. Where do I start?

Jon:
Well, ideally you want to go back to the galleries and start there. Really looking hard at the object that you've selected is a really key and essential thing to do before you come to the library. But once you've done that looking and determined what it is that you're after, then you'll want to come to the library and determining your information need is really critical. The more clearly that you can do that, the better. If you can really refine and hone in on what is it that you'd like to get out of your particular experience at the library, the better.

Rex:

So I've looked at the object. I've found a few terms that I think are really key, maybe I've seen them on the label, maybe I've read them in the Museum of Fine Arts catalog, and I show up at the library. What do I do?

Jon Evans
Jon Evans
Hirsch Research Library
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Jon:
Well you ideally want to consult with a librarian or staff member here, it's a really good way to just get yourself introduced to the staff here and ideally they can have a better sense for what you're working on. We work with a wide range of patrons here, so ideally we can help you most efficiently conduct your research here and not waste time while you're here. Beyond that, what you want to do is start broadly. Unless you have a strong sense for the particular subject matter you want to start looking at encyclopedias, cultural atlases, things of that nature to give you some context in a broader sense for the particular topic that you're looking into. And then from there, depending on whether you have a more specific need, you might want to pursue things in the library catalog or periodical indexes.

Rex:
Okay. Let's say, Jon, that I have some sense of the historical context and some sense of the sort of greater envelope in which my object fits. Now I want to research more specific items or more specific points on my object. How do I do that?

Jon:
Well, ultimately what you want to do is A) determine what kind of index or catalog you want to look at. The library world is broken up into two distinct parts, basically boooks and periodicals, and the library catalog and periodical index help you get at that particular information need. They do it in slightly different ways because one, library catalogs cover things very broadly and periodical indexes focus very narrowly, so depending on your need, if you're starting to hone in on a particular topic, you might want to pursue periodical indexes and there you really have to determine what indexes are appropriate for your research.

Rex:
Well I'm a beginning student and I am familiar with library catalogs because I use them at the university. But periodical indexes, I have no idea what I'm doing. How do I decide which one to look at and how to look at it?

Jon:
Working with Librarians
Well first of all, many libraries have some general research guides that provide summaries or overviews of the periodical indexes in their collections. Each of these libraries spends lots of money in subscriptions to buy these and what they do often is give a brief summary or synopsis of what those are about. So reviewing things that are in the particular realm of the fine arts in the indexes that actually cover that content is critical, trying to determine which indexes will cover your particular topic. If it's not readily apparent or there's not something available in a printed format or in an online format to help you decide which ones are appropriate, once again, talk to a librarian and ideally we can help you determine which ones meet your particular information need.

Rex:
Okay, I have now several periodical indexes that I have decided are appropriate to my subject matter and in which I might find something valuable. What do I do with these? How do I know what words to plug into these periodical indexes?

Jon:
That's an excellent question. Probably the most critical stage of the whole process of doing any research process is not only defining that information need, but then selecting appropriate terms. And the way that you do that is really to look at the object. Look at the terminology. Look at the nouns and adjectives that have been used to describe that particular object. Take those terms, those ones that you feel are most critical or essential to your particular information need, and input those into the particular interface for that periodical index that you've selected. Ideally you want to start with fewer terms, two, possibly three, but I would suggest two, because what you want to do is basically let the computer know what it is that you're after. But you can't be too narrow, you want to start broadly. Sometimes less is more. So start broadly with those two critical terms and then come back and revise your search if necessary with a third term.

Rex:
Now let's say, then, that that search was successful and I have maybe seventy returns on those search terms. How do I decide? How do I do some sort of triage amongst all of those articles, amongst all that information that I've received?

Jon:
Well if you have received a large number, like seventy is a fairly large number, you might not be willing to wade through all seventy of those. It sounds like you're not.

Rex:
No.

Jon:
So, ideally you want to insert or use yet another term. If you had selected two terms, go back and revise your search. Playing, testing, working with these indexes is the only way to really get comfortable with them and know what it is that they can do for you. So utilize yet another search term, put in one more critical term, and that way it will further refine your search. So adding more terms ultimately should bring up fewer results.

Rex:
Let's say I'm down to ten or twelve now and I am willing to wade through these. What am I wading through? What is the periodical index really giving me?

Jon:
Citation
What it's giving you is basically a brief record, what we call a citation that actually helps serve as a surrogate: it helps you identify the content of an article without actually giving you that article. It's not providing the full text of the article in most cases. Most of the resources that we have here that are indexes to periodical literature are not full-text, in fact, none of them are. There are a few tools out there that do that, but by and large we find it preferable to use the indexes for a variety of reasons.

But essentially what you want to do is look at each of the citations very closely and carefully. Determine whether they fit your need. Go back to the question that you've asked. Does it fit, does it match, does get at a particular context or particular specificity that you want to get out of that? And once you've done that, you can help further refine that by looking at other contextual clues. Is it in a language that you can read? Even if the content is right-on, that will obviously be of no use to you if you can't read it. Secondarily, look at the number of pages. Sometimes that can help you identify whether something is going to be really meaty and substantive or if it's just a one-page article. Sometimes that one-page article will not be sufficient for you.

Rex:
So I have the citations, let's say I have - and this is purely hypothetical - let's say I have four or five that I actually want to consult. Then I would ask my librarian at the University of Houston or elsewhere, or ask the librarian here, if you actually have these articles, if then your library has acquired and holds these periodicals in which these articles are found.

Jon:
That's right, that's right. One thing you need to keep in mind with periodical indexes is that they're not produced by the local library. They're not done in the same way that library catalogs are a true reflection of what's in the collection. Periodical indexes are produced by an outside commercial entity and they index a select number of periodicals, many of which may be in your local collection, but you have to recognize that some of those will not. So at that point, really what you want to do is check off those ones that are relevant, that you feel at this stage are relevant, and essentially bring those to the librarian or locate them in the stacks yourself.

Rex:
Thank you, Jon. This has been very helpful.

Jon:
You're quite welcome.

Rex:
Two things I would like to mention for those of you who are taking Art History at the University of Houston:

Gardner's Art Through the Ages
Always consult the reading materials that your professor has provided for the course, especially the bibliographies provided in the back of these reading materials. They are often helpful guides to finding those first important references to your research paper.

The second is, the University of Houston subscribes to the JStor electronic database and in this database are decades and decades of art history research. Take your terms and go to JStor. There you will find full-text and full-image articles that you can download directly from the internet. It's an incredibly effective and efficient way of searching a database.