Classification and Other Ways to Find Information

In the early days of the web – before search engines, can you imagine?? – you found information by going to web pages that provided links to all sorts of things – the links were grouped by category. (For a great book on the history of search on the web, check out The Search by John Battelle).  Categorization or classification as a way of organizing information goes back to Aristotle in the 4th century B.C. It has been the main method of organizing – and therefore finding – information in the modern world.

What does this mean for you? Let’s look back:

Classification: How would your subject be classified? Try using the classification of what you are looking for as your search.

For example, let’s say you are looking for your ancestors. You know they were originally from India but moved to England at the turn of the century. You know their last name was Patel. A Google search of Patel in England isn’t going to get you anywhere. Instead, try taking a step back and thinking how you would categorize what you are looking for. How about “indian immigration to england.” The very first link is useful: Moving Here, a website with online databases of 200,000 documents and other resources about immigration to England that was put together by U.K.’s National Archives and 30 archives, libraries and museums. I bet Moving Here could help you.

Indexes: Our now-common method of keyword searching is relatively new but indexing information by keywords has been around for a long time – major publications like the New York Times would print an annual Index of subject matters, important names and events to help researchers find the right date and page number of relevant articles. That’s a form of keyword. These indexes are warehoused at libraries and are very useful when looking for information older than 20 years ago.

Try the Library of Congress or the library of the largest town near what you’re looking for.

Morgues: Also, newspapers and magazines used to keep “clip files” or “morgue files” of subject matters, people and events to assist researchers. It’s worth calling a publication that covers your subject matter or its location to see if the publication still has morgue files. Some have donated their morgue files to libraries but hopefully someone at the publication can tell you that. For example, Newsweek has donated its pre-electronic files to The Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

Happy Hunting!