Documentation & sourcing

IN THE INTERNET AGE, desk research would seem like the easiest thing: aren’t unfathomable amounts of information instantly available at our fingertips? Yet the surplus of digital information in fact raises serious challenges: besides its sheer, overwhelming volume, much of this material is incomplete, poorly structured and unverified, making for an open-ended process of ploughing through endless amounts of content. It also eclipses equally essential analog sources, such as books and physical archives. But the hardest part of documentary research is that it looks easy, and therefore is rarely guided by an explicit methodology. That’s how analysts so often get lost in the material that was supposed to guide them.

Circumventing desk research entirely, to hurtle down the more exciting path of field-research, is as tempting as it is treacherous. Failing to acquaint yourself with the basics of your topic is disrespectful to people you interview, and a sure way of discrediting yourself in their eyes. Conversely, insight you acquire through documentary research is a precious resource and “currency” during your fieldwork, enabling you to establish your credentials, call your interlocutors’ bluff, and perhaps even tell them something they didn’t know. In short, the solidity and shelf-life of your output will depend on your ability to acknowledge, build on and expand what others have contributed. Because desk research is an integral part of the research process, you should approach it strategically.


First, start with the endgame. When the moment comes to draft your findings, the strength of your arguments will hinge on incorporating datasets, hard facts, illustrative case studies and other supporting evidence—a large share of which will flow from desk research, and must be meticulously sourced. Critically, effective sourcing begins not at the time of drafting, but the day you sit down to start reading background: if you haven’t been structured from the get-go, you will get bogged down in a swamp of documents and webpage links. This will turn writing, which is hard enough in itself, into a nightmarish exercise in stop-and-go.

The only solution is to systematize the process of archiving and referencing the material you collect over time. If you find a striking quantitative figure, for example, its usefulness down the road will depend entirely on two things: ascription to a specific source (including a link, if digital), on one hand, and some point of comparison putting it into perspective, on the other. Similarly, a picture will serve little purpose unless you provide basic context such as a date, a location, an author of some sorts, and ideally a caption providing some measure of detail regarding the image’s relevance. Archiving of textual content also requires consistent labelling, which is why you should adopt one of many systems codifying the author-title-publisher-date combination, e.g. Aya Chamseddine, “The Cocoon,” Synaps, 20 March 2017. (If this doesn’t apply, as in the case of a law, use another accepted classification, as in 44/2017 on elections of the members of Paliament.)

To be clear: however interesting or useful you find it, an unidentified picture or an excerpt from an anonymous document say strictly nothing a reader can trust. Whatever you think worthy of keeping must be properly sourced in your own archives, so you may easily convert it into a formal reference when the need arises. This will save you precious time and focus when it comes to drafting your analysis.

L0015818 R. Lull, showing the Arbor Elementalis to monk

Second, tend to your logical tree. The worst thing to do is tip everything you collect into a data dump, such as countless clippings copy-pasted into a single file, or a vast collection of documents bookmarked or saved haphazardly. Break subjects down into separate themes, subcategories, and so on. Your filing system must reflect these divisions, with each folder receiving material relevant to a specific aspect of the topic. Such distribution may entail parsing any given source and allotting its most notable content to various folders: for instance, if you are building a set of biographies, you will use information coming from a variety of sources compiled under a single entry. There are several reasons for doing this.

A vital goal of this process is to facilitate comparison. Figures produced by different institutions, relating to the same issue, should be brought together in the same place, where they will complement, support or challenge each other. That is equally true of narratives, say, offering diverging interpretations of a contentious event. Another aim consists in visualizing what information is available on any given aspect of the topic. By putting data from various sources side by side, you will move toward recognizing well-researched, agreed upon points or, by contrast, residual gaps. Finally, this process of structuring information is an indispensable analytical tool, creating categories, boundaries and, consequently, a semblance of order, where large quantities of disparate information would otherwise produce confusion.

Third, know that your labor is not in vain. The benefit of documentary research tends to increase with the amount of effort poured into it. A strong dataset is exponentially more valuable than random figures. A collection of biographies fleshed out over months or years, an extensive mapping of relationships, or a thematic chronology that has reached maturity, all provide extraordinarily rich and compelling bases for analysis. Past a certain threshold, they typically become easy to update and can be reused indefinitely. In a sense, those are the green leaves sprouting from the branches of your logical tree.


Achieving this result requires perseverance on your part, all the more given that the sources you are mining are themselves inconsistent. Attention to detail is essential, including building a coherent system for file names, references, numbers, dates, spelling, even formatting. Wherever possible, create and fill out tables and templates. If archiving large documents, you will want to add your own brief takeaways or, better still, summarize them into bullet points. The latter is particularly important with audio and video material, which should be annotated so as to refresh your memory years later if need be.

Lastly, set concrete targets. Desk research is not an end in itself, nor is it particularly exciting (unless you are an obsessive type, in which case the following restrictions apply even more stringently). Once your logical tree has blossomed, it must be trimmed ruthlessly: some branches are dead wood, while others could grow until they blot out the sun. Determine what is useful enough, to you and to others, to warrant your investment. More likely, that will include a good overall understanding of the topic’s different facets; a studious grasp of any cornerstone work already published; the most relevant and credible datasets; and truly problematic gaps in the existing body of knowledge, which you may hope to fill, at least partially.

With these objectives in mind, reading hundreds (or thousands!) of pages of background documentation will prove not just a good use of your time, but an essential—and, ultimately, gratifying—component of the research process.

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Illustration credit: partial map of the Internet; R. Lull showing the Arbor Elementalis to monk; page from Ars Magna Generalis Ultima; Carl Spitzweg The bookworm by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.

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