Thursday, October 7, 2010

Technology and Research, Part 1: My Obsession.

Perhaps it's my background in visual art that makes me more prone to this, but for much of my life I've been suffering from pack-rat-itis. For example, I still maintain (though adding less to it now) my large collection of clipped images and texts from magazines and other paper publications. I keep a stash of various art supplies and a stocked "toolbox" with everything from string to copper wire to paintbrushes and tape measures. I've acquired a collection of notebooks and sketchbooks over the years and I keep these as well, as records and notes about ideas and projects both finished and unfinished.

And yet there's a sort of competing tendency that keeps things in check: I'm also one of those people who loves the storage and organization section of IKEA, because I like the thought of keeping practical items handy in such a way that I can easily reach them and use them. I hate having mounds of stuff and no way to do anything with it; I dislike even receiving gifts if they have no useful purpose and simply require "storage" (sitting on a shelf). I don't even see the point of having two of the same kind of screwdriver. Periodically I "purge" my supplies (usually when I move house) to make sure I'm not holding on to anything completely useless. My need for workable space may occasionally collide with the squirrelly tendency, but usually the one cancels out the other.

These habits have been transferred, now, to the work I do researching for my dissertation and other projects. Not only do I stash books and papers; my computer "desktop" itself has become a version of the way I'd probably organise my apartment if it were possible--everything is kept filed away, labelled clearly and in embedded folders, but everything is kept. And I'm finally at the stage where this habit is starting to pay off: I have a searchable library of notes and PDF files to which I can refer while working on the next phase of my dissertation. It looks slightly over-done to the casual observer, but then what is academic work if not retentive?

The latest manifestation of all this, and one that has become like a third arm to me when it comes to online research, is the social bookmarking tool del.icio.us. This little slice of magic won me over when I realised that all my current, browser based bookmarks--which couldn't be accessed from multiple computers--could be a) uploaded with minimal effort and b) tagged (categorised and labelled with key words), by me, in such a way that they would become useful.

Not only is del.icio.us a powerful tool for sharing things with others and seeing what others are reading; it is--more important to me--a means of creating a personal database of web-based content, accessible from any computer I happen to be using. Why is this desirable? Because I view the web as a major part of my research process, not only in terms of finding the materials I need (books, journal articles, etc.) and connecting with new people (including academics, writers, politicians and policy-makers) but also as a one-stop supersource for media content and information/commentary on current events--crucial to my interest in universities, post-secondary education, politics and policy, and the ways in which ideas about these things circulate discursively.

del.icio.us also has some pretty desirable features that make it easy to incorporate into my daily news-reading habits. As I mentioned above, existing browser-based bookmarks can be imported, saving a lot of duplicated effort (I was able to use about 4 years' worth of saved links). There is also an extension integrating del.icio.us into your (Firefox) browser, so that clicking on a single button allows you to tag and comment on something before saving it to your account; the same extension allows you to search existing tags in a side-bar. The list of PSE links at the left-hand side of this blog page is channelled to Blogger from del.icio.us as well, showing only those recent links tagged as relating to PSE. As you can tell, the tagging system is key to the usefulness of del.icio.us, and I soon developed my own strategy for maximising the usefulness of tagging.

And while all this seems like a lot of work, it really isn't--compared to the ways in which it's paying off. During the York University strike over 2008-2009, I tagged/bookmarked over 300 news items--press releases, articles and blog posts--which I was able to use later for a media analysis that became a conference presentation. I've saved clusters of articles on a series of specific themes that will work as media case studies in the future (possibly for publications); one of these I've already used in a class lecture on Critical Discourse Analysis. And then there's the usefulness of simply being able to access "that article" that you read two months ago, the one about gender and accessibility and women's pay (for example), and bring it in to class or into a paper or blog post or--you name it. I see this not only as a way of keeping up to date with current developments in the "field", but also as a means of enriching what I'm writing by referencing a more diverse array of sources.

del.icio.us is one of those Web 2.0 tools that makes me feel blessed to be researching in the Internet Era. And, I admit, it's also just a teeny bit enjoyable to be able to justify my storage and organization "habit" (hobby? Obsession?) as a means of actually advancing/enhancing my own research work.

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Coming up soon, in Part 2: Why I like "Tweeting" and "Googling"...a few comments on the Internet, connectivity and interdisciplinarity.

3 comments:

  1. I, like you, suffer from pack-rat-itis and often clip out things from magazines. I've been digging Delicious lately to help me stay organized and keep things in a digital format instead.

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  2. Have you noticed that Twitter now links directly with Delicious? You can just send links to Twitter (automatically shortened) and make a comment on them at the same time, without leaving Delicious. Quite handy (if you're tweeting, anyway).

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