Magical Portals for Research

“A straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”
Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time (from

Searching a special collections archive can at times feel as mind-boggling as finding the wrinkles that lead you to another time dimension. How do you find those “magical portals,” entry points to archives, and simplify daunting site navigation? Though the role of librarians has evolved from that of “gatekeeper,” “gatekeeper” does have a metaphysical ring to it–conjuring up a scene from Monty Python in which you must correctly answer the riddle posed by the bridge keeper or risk being hurtled into the abyss. The challenge for librarians is to identify entry points and model search strategies, thereby minimizing frustration and building students’ skills as independent researchers.

Here are a few favorite “magical portals” and search strategies that our students have been using to enrich their research with primary sources and scholarly articles:

Science Research: Engines of Our Ingenuity and Topics in Chronicling America
Fifth graders have been exploring the lives of scientists and inventors and applying design thinking to their research. Challenged to find examples of how society reacted to the science discoveries, students used the podcast articles from Engines of Our Ingenuity, written and hosted by Dr. John Lienhard in association with the University of Houston and Houston Public Media. One student unearthed a gem in the article “Darwin Boards the Beagle.” Darwin was close friends with the captain of the Beagle at the beginning of the journey, but as the captain learned more about Darwin’s evolving theories, they collided with the captain’s own beliefs in the Bible and he become an enemy, participating in debates in Oxford to discredit Darwin. This article provided the student with an example of how society’s beliefs conflicted with Darwin’s discoveries.

Search strategy: Rather than using the Engines of Our Ingenuity search box, an Advanced Google search provided more specific results.
(Bound phrase search) “engines of our ingenuity” Darwin

Topics in Chronicling America links historic newspapers themed to topics such as famous persons and events in Science and Technology. This is a much easier way for young researchers to navigate the Chronicling America archived newspapers through the Library of Congress.

Search strategy: Select a topic, such as Invention of the Telephone, and click on newspaper article “A Wonderful Invention.” Scan the paper for red highlighted word and use the box finder tool to zoom in and read this article about how Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his telephone to an enthusiastic audience.

History Research: JSTOR Daily
Seventh graders researched social reformers of the 1800s and were challenged to connect these reform movements to modern reform initiatives. In searching for articles on Laura Bridgman, the first blind and deaf girl to learn how to read and write, we discovered JSTOR Daily, an online publication that puts contemporary issues in historic context using research from the journals archived in JSTOR. The Laura Bridgman article, for example, explored the changing views towards special education.

Search Strategy: A bonus to these JSTOR Daily articles is that they link to JSTOR journal articles. For instance, the Laura Bridgman article linked to a JSTOR journal article about Dr. Howe’s educational methods in teaching Laura to read and write.

Language Arts: Constitution Daily, Circulation Now, and New York Times Archives
Eighth grade Language Arts students incorporated primary sources as they researched US History topics. Several museums and newspaper archives have online articles to highlight their collections and provide easier access to the content. Below are just a few examples:

Constitution Daily blog showcases content from the National Constitution Center. The Scopes Trial article provides historic context to the trial as well as links to a Tennessee House Bill on Teaching Science (2011).

Search strategy: Rather than using the Constitution Daily search box, an Advanced Google search provided more specific results.
(Bound phrase search) “scopes trial”

Circulation Now blog links historic items from the US National Library of Medicine (NIH).  The “Heart Surgery on Film” article discusses the work of one of the first female heart surgeons, Dr. Nina Braunwald, and the blog was written by a library graduate student, Rachel James.

Search Strategy: I used this article by Rachel James to model search strategies and resources that Rachel used to develop her research on heart surgery.

New York Times Archive themes articles to famous events and provides links to historic newspapers. This article on the Three Mile Island disaster links to a newspaper article written at the time. Though you need to be a subscriber to view the historic newspapers, the featured articles often contain specific examples from the primary source newspaper.

Search Strategy: Use Advanced Google search archives “three mile island”

These are just a few of the “magical portals” that have opened up new ways for students to navigate archives. Rather than a straight path, research requires searchers to remain curious and experiment with search strategies. As Madeleine L’Engle observed in A Wrinkle in Time, “experiment is the mother of knowledge.”

2 thoughts on “Magical Portals for Research

  1. I love this! Thanks for sharing such practical search strategies and the work that they support. It’s affirming to see that others perform advanced Google searches into specific sources, too. I like your analogy of magical portals here because it does feel like we have to be crafty(er) in our information retrieval strategies.

  2. Thanks Natalie. We have found advanced Google searches provide more powerful way to search within scholarly sites, but we do want to teach students how to narrow their searches to specific sites that have rich content. Love to hear more about your crafty(er) strategies!

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