History 297: 19th-Century Urban Chinese Death Ritual Literature Review

Thoughts Regarding Scholarly Databases

Prompt 4: What academic databases do you find most helpful in your research? Challenging? Why? Strengths and weaknesses? Which ones do you think you should explore further?

Throughout my past three semesters at Mary Washington, I have gained a greater understanding on how to navigate and properly utilize online databases. Currently, my favorite database for historical research is JSTOR, however, I have also utilized ARTstor, various museum catalogs, and more recently, World Cat for my research projects.

This semester, I am working on a project that explores historiographical perspectives on Chinese funerary practices and the issue of death and dying in 19th-century China. I have discovered two excellent sources so far, two books, both of which I have obtained information from on World Cat, followed by obtaining physical copies of the works through Interlibrary Loan.

In past courses, specifically Western Civilizations I and II, I have used JSTOR, ARTstor, and online-accessible museum catalogs for all of my research. My project in Western Civilizations II, my first college history course, focussed on the role of Catholicism as a unifying force under Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain. A requirement of this project was that I used as many primary sources as possible, which would have been quite difficult if I attempted to translate 15th and 16th-century Spanish records. Instead, I utilized images of art and architecture, which of course, are “universally accessible,” as they do not exist in any written language, per say. While I have not used ARTStor this year, it remains an indispensable database, especially when researching topics from other cultures.

Last semester, I embarked on a research journey into Late Archaic and Early Classical Greek Funerary Practices, with a focus on funerary art. (It was a research project that was quite easy on the eyes.) While it ended up that only a thorough outline was required to be submitted as the final project, this macabre and ethereal topic remains one of my more memorable research projects. For this project, along with JSTOR and ARTstor, I also made use of numeral museum catalogs, such as that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Getty. These catalogs were excellent, as they provided an overview of pertinent information, such as the date or location in which a work was created, as well as a brief description of the relevance of the work.

This year, alongside History 297, I am also enrolled in a history course on the Stuart British Isles. For both of these classes, I have been using JSTOR and World Cat. My introduction to World Cat came from my History 297 course, and while I am still fumbling through the functions of the database, it appears to be quite promising in my research. I enjoy the initial search interface, including the search options, which, if used correctly, provides a small but relevant amount of texts and sources. World Cat is definitely a database that I plan on exploring further.

When I am in a pinch, however, or need a classic standby to provide me with an excellent offering of sources, I go to JSTOR, one of the most beloved databases. I find that JSTOR’s strong suits exists in it’s great accessibility and the way in which the database pulls just enough relevant works, but not “anything and everything.” (I’m looking at you, UMW Quest.) 

Further, I love the way in which JSTOR quickly provides citations in all formatting styles, (Yes of course, I do indeed check this for accuracy.) as well as the quick download function for articles. In fact, today in History 297, I used JSTOR to download an article for class discussion that was not posted to our courses’ website.

I have used JSTOR countless times this and last year. Believe it or not, I first heard about the source not from a professor or the Simpson Library, but rather, from a classmate in one of my history courses. While discussing the trials and tribulations of being a history major at Mary Washington, (I had not yet declared, however, I was even then quite familiar with the vast number of papers and readings required, and the way in which many majors thought of Monroe as a second home) this classmate mentioned that they swore by JSTOR.

Oh, me too!” I said to my classmate in agreement. (I had not yet, sworn by JSTOR.) After a quick Google search, I realized that JSTOR was a database. Databases overwhelmed me. How did you find what you needed? How did you download the information? Who on earth reads that many sources all at once? (Do they just…pretend to read the sources? Do you gain some sort of mystical power once you declare your major that allows you to instantly absorb information from databases?) Eventually, I became acquainted with JSTOR. I learned that access could easily be gained by the Simpson Library and that searches were best done with the use of thematic terms, rather than specific words. Further, I learned in my FSEM how to tell the difference between a reliable journal and a “fake” journal. (I generally do not find these “fake” journals on JSTOR, however.)

As far as challenges and further exploration is concerned, there is still much more for me to learn. In fact, I learned just recently that one could abbreviate a search term with an asterisk, such as in the case of entering in “funera*” instead of “funerary” or “funeral.” (Thank you to Mary Washington’s all-knowing research expert, Jack Bales, for this one.) This tip should prove quite helpful, and I am excited to use it in further research. Now, using a database is fun and informative, rather than daunting. I think about how thankful I am for JSTOR’s existence.

Every so often, I think about how thankful I am for JSTOR’s existence. Especially in the midst of research season.

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