Down the rabbit hole: How long should you spend tracking down that one article?

In reading an article on public perceptions of agriculture, I decided I wanted to track down a citation contained in it. The following is a brief description of the saga to find the source, and what I ultimately got out of tracking it down. Was it worth the time I spent? Ultimately, I think so, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.

All too often, demands of our day-to-day research lives mean that we may not have the luxury of tracking down a source in time to add it to a publication, or read an original cited by another author rather than citing the intermediate source’s interpretation. However, in this case I think I wanted to know more about the overall survey of public perception than just the part cited in the article, so I set out to find it.

The first reference turned out to be to a trade publication, a magazine for agricultural educators. This in itself was a bit of a struggle to find, as these are not often archived by libraries, and the particular issue I was looking for was pre-internet (!). I think a google search led me to an archive of it or someone’s individual scanned back-copy. Unfortunately, the authors there referenced a newspaper article with a date, but didn’t include the day of the month of the daily newspaper. So I had the month and year and a page number, but no day of the month.

Now, if it were a more recent article, or from a larger newspaper, this might not have been a problem. This citation was from the Athens Banner-Herald from about the same time period, the 1980’s. The Athens, GA, daily paper is not one archived in a lot of places; I think it’s only at the University of Georgia and the county public library, since it really isn’t a widely-circulated general interest publication. Luckily, I have the UF interlibrary loan service, so I thought they might be able to request it, even though they typically need the actual date for the newspaper. I tried calling the Athens libraries first to see if they could help me figure out the page number so I could request it, but they could only suggest hiring someone to do the research for me there; they couldn’t use their staff resources to look at each individual daily copy on microfilm to locate the article on page 9. Not entirely surprising, but it did confirm they didn’t have any easy online resources to locate it that weren’t public access – just the microfilm.

I had to try a couple of requests to get it to work without driving the 5.5 hours to Athens to look this up myself, though. The libraries  were unwilling at first to send the microfilm itself to us; they normally would print the particular pages for the ILL patron and send just those to the requesting library. I think what finally worked was asking for the full month’s worth of p. 9 to compare, rather than saying I was looking for a specific article – basically, selling it that I would do the work needed to find the article I wanted. I think UF’s ILL service helped, too, in convincing them to send the whole microfilm.

You may have given up long before this. I think I normally would have, too, except I wasn’t pressed for time to acquire this, and I found more articles citing this same older statistic. When I finally got the microfilm, sure enough, it was there on May 9, 1985. What was so valuable to find, however? The source of the report: a Gallup poll. Now in all my internet searches on the title of the article, I never found another reference besides the Athens paper because the headline was not connected to the poll itself. When I was finally able to search on the Gallup poll, I still came up a little short because most of the other references were similar newspaper reports.

When I contacted Gallup is when I really started to make progress. Not only do they have the report archived, but they have been collecting that data every few years since then. That revelation opened my eyes to something that perhaps seems obvious in retrospect – there are poling agencies out there collecting interesting tidbits of data all the time that aren’t always published in the scholarly literature. Unfortunately, I’m at another roadblock for the moment, as the university doesn’t currently subscribe to Gallup so I can’t get to the original or more recent data yet, but I’m working on that next.

What do you think? Was my quest ultimately worth the time I spent?

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