Let's say you are interested in investigating this research question: How did the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894 impact peasant women in rural China? Following the chart above, let's walk through the issues that we need to consider. Remember that this is only meant to be a mental exercise, a kind of reality check before you spend time performing actual searches.
- What sources would we hope to find? Who would the authors be?
In order to assess the impact of an event on a certain group of people, we would need sources written by and/or about those individuals. Personal diaries and letters would be useful; the authors would be the peasants themselves. Additionally, governments create reports and documents about issues that impact population segments; the Chinese government would be the author. Contemporary newspapers might also report on the conditions of a people. So there is some undefined number of sources we could hypothetically start with.
If we were to stop there in assessing feasibility, that sounds okay: lots of possible sources, right?
- Of those authors, how many are likely to have actually created sources?
This question asks you to look at your brainstormed list of sources from a different perspective. Newspapers in the late 19th century are likely to exist; similarly, a government in the late 19th century is likely to have created documentation. Those two pass this test without issue. But let's consider our first idea of personal diaries and letters from the Chinese peasants. Some rural peasants may have been literate, but others likely were not, particularly among women, so the potential quantity of sources decreases. In addition to the simple question of whether they were able to write, we should also contemplate whether they were inclined to write: did a hard-working peasant in a poor rural area have the time and inclination to keep a diary, for instance? And under wartime conditions? Let's assume that this reasoning might leave us with 1/2, half, of the original number of sources.
- Of those sources, how many likely survived?
Let's assume that there were at least some literate Chinese peasants who did choose to document their thoughts and experiences in diaries or letters. That would suggest that sources were created. But not all sources that were once created remain in existence for researchers to consult! Given the living conditions of the people in question, and the subsequent history of the country, it is probable that many original sources of this sort simply did not survive to the present time. Let's assume only 1/4th of the created sources survived, leaving us with 1/8th of the original number of sources.
- Of those, how many are likely to have been published or digitized?
We would like to believe that the whole world of information is available online, but it is far from true. Many millions of primary sources exist in archives but have not been published in print or online. Many factors come into play in determining whether a source will have been published, such as the prominence or popularity of the topic(s) to which the source relates, its potential profitability as assessed by publishers, and so forth. Let's assume that perhaps 1/4th of the surviving sources might have been published or digitized, leaving us with 1/32nd of the original number of sources.
- Of those, how many are likely in English (or another language that you can read)?
Given the time and place of this sample research question, it is almost certain that any surviving sources would be written in Chinese. Therefore, the question we must consider is, how many of the published/digitized sources have also been translated into English? Sources can often be slow to make it into translation unless they have content of significant, wide-ranging importance. Let's assume that perhaps 1/4th of the published/digitized sources have translations, leaving us with 1/128th of the original number of sources.
Note: even if your topic is in U.S. history, don't just skip right over the language question; really take a moment to think about it. Is this topic likely to be addressed in Spanish-language newspapers from the southwest? Letters written by German immigrants? Documents created by Chinese laborers in the west? Even "United States history" does not automatically mean that the primary sources will be in English or a language that you can read.
You can see that, no matter what the original undefined number of sources might be, taking just one 128th of that is a significantly smaller number! And there is still one last point to consider, although it is less significant than the others:
- Of those, how many is our library likely to own?
Consider how many Asian history classes our History department teaches, compared to American, European, and other sorts of history. You can skim the course catalogs if you aren't sure. Consider also how many of the department's faculty members specialize in this area. Now understand that the library's policies will attempt to purchase materials in a certain area proportionally to the amount of teaching and faculty research being done in this area at the university. Therefore, fields which are more heavily taught and researched will have a larger library collection than fields which are rarely taught and researched.
Let's assume, just for the sake of this example, that our library purchases maybe 1/4th of all the resources published in Asian history. And that's total, not just sources related to this topic, so the number for this topic would be even smaller.
Why is this criteria is less significant than the others?
Because you are able to access materials beyond our library. The TexShare program allows you to check out published materials from nearby Texas libraries. Interlibrary Loan helps you to borrow published materials from other libraries, both near and far. And digital archives allow you access to some archival collections from other institutions.
But making use of these other options will require a greater amount of time and effort, so it is beneficial to plan ahead! Start searching early to determine what kinds of sources are easily available here at SHSU and what sources you may need to expend more effort to find and access.
Conclusions: Just from walking through this critical thinking process, we can conclude that the hypothetical research question would likely be very difficult to manage within the scope of this class.
We cannot, of course, determine at this point whether the question is fundamentally "answerable." We would need to actually search for and assess the existing sources. Additionally, the question might be more feasible for a researcher who reads Chinese fluently and has access to Chinese archives.
However, we have deduced enough to know this question is NOT a feasible option for this class.