Friday, December 4, 2009

Using databases for personal research

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving! I met up with some friends and we ate, talked, played games, and just had an all-around good time.

Over the break, I also polished off The Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O'Conner and feel immensely smarter as a result.

The reason? I get yelled at from time to time for trying to flagrantly split infinitives, pronouncing "forte" as though it were an Army post instead of the French word it isn't, indiscriminately calling a spade a spade, refusing to be gobsmacked by a British accent, and finding prepositions to end a sentence with.

Hogwash, says O'Conner. Although she repeats a lot of stuff I already knew -- being an avid reader of blogs about linguistics, lexicography, orthography, and syntax, as well as a librarian specializing in that subject area, it's hard to avoid being saturated with descriptivism -- she does so in a very entertaining way, and also manages to reveal new information. For example, did you know that in spite of what some Londoners (*cough* Prince of Wales *cough*) might say, British English is not the "better" version of English? There is no better version, but if you were to seriously argue it out with an angry Mancunian, the truth is that a lot of so-called Americanisms are actually holdovers from before the Colonies split from the Crown.

You can thank Noah Webster for that -- he's the guy who compiled the first English dictionary on our side of the Atlantic -- and his competition with Samuel Johnson, who did the same over in England. Webster decided he'd prefer to maintain the more traditional orthography (like "theater"), while Samuel Johnson, being the radically progressive sort, decided to adopt the spellings that had emerged in recent decades (like "theatre"). The same is true with our "-ize" and their "-ise" -- ours is the older ending, while theirs is actually the result of various attempts to Latinize the English language by cutting up a bunch of French words and sticking them on the end of English words. This has continued even today, with "kerb" and "flat" being adopted by Britons over the more old-fashioned "curb" and "apartment."

Even more interesting is the difference between British and American accents. They pronounce things differently than we do, and the assumption is that their way is the more old-fashioned, the product of a thousand-year-old monarchy (give or take a Cromwell or two), while we're the upstarts. O'Conner blew me away here -- apparently the British pronunciation is newer than ours! After the Revolution, the English language was torn asunder, and, in Britain, began evolving away from the common form almost immediately. They lost the 'r' (in a debate which might have killed Percy Bysshe Shelley) and gained the broad vowel (like "pawth" instead of "pahth"), while ours stayed pretty much the same.

This means that we in the United States sound an awful lot like seventeenth-century Englishmen! I like to think that William Shakespeare himself might have felt at home in the Mall of America. Take a look at the book sometime -- it makes English sound much more like the fascinating language it really is.

Before we move on to today's main topic, I'd like to make a suggestion. It's getting close to Christmas, and it's one of those times of year when you may end up getting a bunch of new stuff. If you'd like to make room for it all, consider donating any extra books or movies to the Library. Just make sure any movies you bring are captioned or subtitled and that everything's in good condition. Check ALADIN Discovery before you bring it all in, though, and make sure we don't already have what you bring in. We'll still take it, but if it's not in better condition than what we have, it may go on the Book Sale shelf.

In the meantime, let's talk a little bit about more general research of the kind that you'd most likely use Google for: personal curiosity! Sometimes Gallaudet students, faculty, or staff want to research stuff just for their own edification, outside of class -- I know I do -- and they're more than welcome to do so with our databases.

Let's say you want to find out more about what's going on in Congress. Or the twinge in your knee after your last pick-up basketball game. Google's a pretty good place to go! However -- and this is a big however -- Google has its flaws and you have much better resources at your disposal when you're affiliated with Gallaudet as a student or faculty or staff member.

We'll take a look at the two examples (Congress, knee twinge) mentioned above and how you can use your affiliation with Gallaudet to find the best information available.

To start with: Congress. Most of what happens in Congress is public information and is avidly covered by news outlets and individual bloggers on the Internet, which means that lots of information can come easily to hand. However, searching for stuff on Congress can lead to getting drowned in political attack Web sites ('Ginny Brown-Waite, D-Fl: Does She Eat Babies? Anonymous Sources Say Yes'), fluffy news articles ('Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, Opens Binghamton IKEA to Fanfare'), and the politician's own propaganda engines ('Press Release from the Office of Senator Max Baucus: Sen. Baucus Meets, Greets Foreign Heads of State').

Somewhere in the middle of all that stuff is genuine information about what's happening in the legislature. Still, it can take a lot of time to sift through a mass of conflicting and unreliable sources, when you just want real, unbiased reporting.

Fortunately, there's a solution: CQ Weekly. That's one of our databases, which you can find by going to "Databases by Subject" in ALADIN and clicking on the list item that says "Multi-subject:Articles/Dissertations." CQ Weekly reports on Congress: what issues are before the legislature, what senators and representatives are doing, fundraising status, all sorts of things Congressional. CQ also offers useful tools like appropriation charts, quick summaries of bills to watch, vote charts, and listings of current public laws, all of which offer frequent and regular updates. It's a beautiful thing.

CQ Weekly, incidentally, is one of a group of databases owned by CQ Press. We've also got access to CQ Researcher, which provides incredibly useful summaries written by seasoned journalists on the state of current issues in the United States and around the world. Both CQs are always worth checking out.

As for that pain in your knee ... well, it could be any number of things, right? Google brings up 7.21 million search results for "knee injury." Yikes. Now what?

Now -- and this should have been done before checking Google -- the first thing you should do is see a doctor and get it treated. Seriously. Quit self-diagnosing.

If, after you've seen a qualified medical professional, found out that it's being caused by damage to your meniscus, and begun treatment, you're still curious about why this sort of thing happens and other ways to treat it, head to ALADIN. Look for "Databases by Subject" and find the list item that says "Audiology/Human Biology/Medical Sciences" and take a look at it. There are a few good possibilities there; the most obvious-looking ones are both called PubMed (Central and Medline) and are run by the National Library of Medicine. Central is a full-text database, while Medline only collects citations, so if you're going to use either, go for Central. However, they're both extremely technical, so unless you're highly conversant with human biology and medicine, try CINAHL instead: Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature. This, too, can be technical, but for the most part, it's more practically applicable -- you can see articles listed about various types of meniscal injuries related to basketball and the most common treatments for them It's pretty nice!

If you're not looking for scholarly research about your knee, though, the National Library of Medicine also provides a free public resource named (confusingly) Medline Plus at It's a terrific resource for the ailments that come as a result of day-to-day living.

You should bear in mind that our resources cover many topics and by no means are we limited to politics and orthopedics; it's always a good idea to take a quick look at our listing of databases in order to fully understand exactly what you do have access to. If you come across a database name that doesn't obviously denote its content -- ProQuest comes to mind -- ask a librarian.

In general, though, we do have an amazing amount of resources, both online and off. It really is to your benefit to take advantage of all you have available to you, even if it's for personal purposes rather than for school-related reasons. Using our databases in this way brings another benefit: it's practice. The more you use our databases, for whatever reason, the more you learn about how you can use them, and the better you'll become at performing academic research. Plus it makes your librarians feel good. Everyone wins!

Next week is the last week of classes, so everyone's going to be busy focusing on schoolwork. Because of that, we'll be doing a puff piece: What goes on in the Library after everyone's gone home for the winter break?

Question of the Week
I remember last winter, during break, the Library was open. Will that happen again this year? Also, I kind of freaked out when I tried to renew a book online and it said my record expired. Is this normal and why does it happen?
We will definitely be open during winter break, except for December 25-January 3, when we'll be closed for the period between Christmas and New Year's. Otherwise, our hours will be Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. You can certainly come in and check stuff out when we're open!

As for your record expiring, that is normal. It's built into the system as a consequence of our semester system -- all records are set to expire at the end of each semester, and are then updated at the beginning of the next semester after you've registered for classes and we know that you are, in fact, coming back. Just come on in, let us know if you'll be back in the Spring, and we'll fix you up.

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