OK, I’ll admit, it would have been a much weirder film if Disney had decided to animate a tiny ocean-dwelling Beethoven who had to be rescued from a dentist’s fish tank. (Although possibly I should copyright this idea in case there are any avant-garde film makers reading it.) But yes: today, I want to write about finding things. Not so much turtles in the East Australia Current. More music on the internet. Though obviously if you’re researching Thomas Newman, you might legitimately end up with both.
Last week, I spent a fascinating afternoon with a group of students at CityLit exploring all of the various resources that they could access online in their search for more information about classical music. I could probably have called the course ‘Looking at places that aren’t Wikipedia or YouTube for information that’s actually accurate and recordings that don’t violate copyright,’ although in the end I decided on something a bit catchier. But in essence, it was about spreading the word on some of the excellent websites, catalogues, streaming services and other resources around the place that can broaden your knowledge. And quite a lot of the session was taken up discussing how information is actually labelled on the web, and how search engines – whether within a single site, or across the whole of the internet – actually find stuff for you.
The internet is amazing, of course, because of the sheer amount of material that is at our disposal. But paradoxically, this also makes it rather harder to successfully do the thing that has become the web verb par excellence: browse. Looking at a Google results list is not really browsing, it’s having the chance to see who’s paid the most, and been cited the most frequently, to get themselves to the top of the charts. As we all know, being popular and rich doesn’t equate in any sense to being reliable. So there were basically four things that we ended up talking about at length last week, and I thought they might be worth sharing here for anyone interested in a little information surfing. (See, surfing! Because of Finding Nemo, and the EAC, and… oh, never mind. Let’s just get on with it.)
- Librarians are your friend. Yes, I’m aware I just said we spent the afternoon talking about online resources. But you would be amazed at the online resources that your public library membership will get you access to. Go and ask the nice librarians! They will reveal all. Plus, you’ll actually be in the library, and there will be books, scores, CDs and DVDs that can help you too. And someone to ask about what might be good to look at. Seriously now. Staring at the computer’s all well and good, but there’s nothing quite so brilliant as a highly qualified and informed human.
- Yes, you need to be able to spell. Google might have conned us all into thinking that we can type some random combination of consonants with the occasional ‘i’ and the computer will somehow magically know that we really meant ‘Mississippi’, but that’s not actually the case on quite a few search engines (see Oxford Music Online, for instance, where an appealing spooling mistale like ‘Beerhoven’ will simply earn you a ‘nope, can’t find it’ sort of message). Check the spelling first, to make sure you’re looking for the right thing. But don’t worry too much about multiple variants of the same name. Once again, librarians have been busy fixing the fact that there are about eight thousand possible ways to spell Shostakovich by using standard titles and spellings. If you want to know more, search for the name you’re after followed by ‘VIAF’, like this. That’s the ‘Virtual International Authority File’, AKA, librarians do the hard work so you don’t have to.
- Research is like orienteering: start from one spot in the forest and work outwards. It’s best to get off the ground with a single reliable source that has links or a bibliography. Then you can work outwards from there. The better your foundations, the more solid your building is likely to be, so if you begin with something like Oxford Music Online, or a composer-specialist site like the Beethoven-Haus Bonn, your information is likely to be sound and you can then work further afield to find out more through subsequent sites and sources.
- Copyright matters and it’s your responsibility too. I feel as if I spend a lot of time talking to students about plagiarism, but not enough time talking about valid recordings and fair sharing of print materials for general research. YouTube is full of illegal uploads, and there are plenty of text-based sites (blogs, online notes, would-be ‘expert’ sites and so on) that nick indiscriminately from other sources without due credit. Consider the fact that if all you do is access material illegally, the performers and composers who make the music you love so much will have no income to keep going. Yeah, it’s easy to start with a big site where you can find everything. But the real gold dust comes with a little more digging. Have fun exploring! You never know what you might find.