How to do research

My father recently wrote to me wondering if I could help him find the abstract for a doctoral dissertation from 1947. The abstract wasn't available online, and it appeared as though one of two physical copies was at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Library.

My niece was visiting the same week, so I thought, what a good opportunity for her to see how old-fashioned research was done, as in the days Before Google!

We drove to the St. Paul campus and discovered that the first challenge was getting to the library itself. It was on the 4th floor, but the elevator was out-of-service. We took the stairs but arrived at the 4th floor to find a closed door with no handle. We descended a floor and accosted a graduate student who gave us proper directions.

Perhaps because of the difficulty accessing the library it was not surprising to discover that it was devoid of scholars. Only one librarian, a student worker who reminded me of Travis from Clueless, was present. Demonstrating good research techniques, I asked him where I would find the volume in question. My niece wandered off and plopped herself down in a chair.

I quickly located the thesis. I cajoled my niece into joining me and showed off some of the more intriguing features of the volume: typed with a typewriter on pages bearing a watermark of the university's seal, the figures were photographs adhered to the pages with photo corners. Marvel at this book, I said, for it is likely that only 2 copies exist in the world!

I don't think she was impressed.

To accomplish our research mission, all we needed to do was photograph the abstract page. One problem: the dissertation contained no abstract. After confirming with the librarian that I would be disturbing no one, I called my father to tell him the information he requested did not exist. We determined that the 6-page Summary and Conclusions section at the end would suffice.

The librarian helped direct me to the scanner, where I put together a PDF and sent it to my father via e-mail. My niece was still unimpressed. Perhaps if we had sent photos of the pages via Snapchat it would have made more sense.

Before you go away thinking that I am the most boring uncle ever, we also went to a WNBA game, visited the Raptor Center, hung out by the pool, ate pizza, watched YouTube, visited a park, saw a waterfall, played Settlers of Catan, visited a sculpture garden, played artist-designed miniature golf, and zip-lined over the indoor amusement park at the Mall of America.

Days later I asked my father a nagging question: how did he even become aware of this obscure, unpublished document? He revealed that another researcher had recommended it to him decades ago, and that he in fact had a photocopy of the entire document at home, filed away somewhere that he had failed to locate.

Knowing where to find something is good, but better is knowing where it already is!


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