Research Rapture: Leaving No Stone Unturned

There can be real joy in diving into topics far beyond one’s own domain, but also concern about getting too caught up in the process. But fear not, getting sidetracked does not have to be a bad thing!

If you are accustomed to bouncing around digital resources to learn as much as you can about a particular subject, you have probably had some contact with “research rapture.” This age-old phenomenon – experienced by just about anyone who cannot “get enough” about a specific subject or idea – is common for those whose work involves the world of libraries, academic writing, and research. Since digitization enables links to more and more information, you might find you have a real time-management issue on your hands. Can you afford the time you might spend (waste?) on these efforts? Is it a legitimate part of your research, or is it self-indulgence? Should you be worried?

Despite my identifying this activity as “age-old,” the term itself seems to be fairly new. It came to my attention in a 2013 New York Times article by Sean Pidgeon, writing about his “compulsion” (as he called it). His essay is titled “Rapturous Research,” and without any hesitation Pidgeon states clearly that he is “addicted to looking things up.” And why not? Wouldn’t anyone with the curiosity to be an author, researcher, or even a conscientious publisher of scholarly and scientific works (which is Pidgeon’s work) want to look beyond the specific topic he is searching?

“In a way, we crave research rapture.”

More recently – possibly as a result of Pidgeon’s article or perhaps people are just talking about it – my “circle” of associates seems to have seriously taken up the idea of research rapture. Indeed, we don’t even put quotation marks around the term anymore. It’s now just part of what we say when we talk about getting “off-track” when doing research, or when we are speaking (even when we are complaining) about not having enough time to do all we have to do. For those of us teaching in the academic community, with restrictions brought on by the pandemic and additional responsibilities from staff shortages, we have all found ourselves caught in a dilemma. We need to do research for our studies and teaching. At the same time, though, most of us still need a lot of time for our research because we are not comfortable doing it in a hurry. In a way, we crave research rapture. It’s part of what we do.

Unexpected Discoveries

Everyone – academic or otherwise – wants to have some fun when they are doing research. Beyond the academic or the pursuit of the scientific method, if a search is not necessarily connected to a specific project or task (perhaps you are just curious to see what you can learn), there is no harm in taking advantage of the pleasure of spending some time looking something up. It happens to most of us, giving us the opportunity to learn something new. Indeed, even if you are doing a search for something else not related to your “ordinary” life, you’ll find yourself picking up some fact or bit of knowledge that – as most of us put it – might “come in handy” one of these days.

And there’s no question but that this kind of research can be very rewarding. When I was a young man, working as a student assistant in the Reference Room of the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia, I had many fine experiences with this sort of research, but I don’t know what we called it. Or if it even had a descriptor. It was just part of our work at the Reference Desk. We were there to answer questions and to lead our users – students, graduate students, and faculty alike – to what they were looking for.

At the library, I worked with Mrs. Mabel Talley, a charming and very knowledgeable lady, and a colleague who became a life-long friend. Mrs. Talley managed the Reference Desk and she and I had great fun with things like: “Did you ever know about this?” and then one of us would proceed to share whatever delicious tidbit had just been discovered.

And once the new fact had been shared, the discovery was almost always followed by “How did you find that?” This question had its own response. “Oh,” I would casually reply (or she to me), “one of the history students was asking why ‘Monticello’ is the name of Jefferson’s home. As I looked in book after book about Monticello to find the answer, I came on this lengthy description of how nails were made at Monticello in Jefferson’s time.”

Did we need to have this information? Of course not, but both Mrs. Talley and I were pleased to discover that what we already knew about Jefferson was now strengthened and might sometime be useful in another reference query or request. Neither of us paid much attention to the research activity that led to the additional fact; it was just something we did as we worked the Reference Desk and with the new discovery, we had another bit of information to pass on to enquiring students.

So even back in the early 1960s, without realizing it, we were participating in the activity that Pidgeon and other researchers experience. And Pidgeon even attempted a definition of research rapture in his New York Times article, made up from “various informal definitions found online”:

“A state of enthusiasm or exultation arising from the exhaustive study of a topic or period of history; the delightful but dangerous condition of becoming repeatedly sidetracked in following intriguing threads of information, or constantly searching for one more elusive fact.”

So while Mrs. Talley and I didn’t realize it, perhaps we had reached Pidgeon’s “state of enthusiasm.” When we think about the process, it soon becomes obvious that many researchers do go far beyond the initial search to look for “something else.” But Pidgeon – in these later times – brought us into the fold, gave us a new focus about our research (and gave us something to talk about), and many of us now find ourselves looking for opportunities to dive into – or to hear about and even perhaps experience – research rapture. Or to tell others about it.

Insatiable Curiosity

A recent conversation about the concept with Sandra Kitt, a novelist and a good friend, brought me another set of ideas about the subject. Not long ago, Kitt and I both heard a lecture given by the Library Director and Curator of Collections of a large private library in New York City. In the lecture, the librarian described an 1845 fold-out panorama of both sides of the Hudson River from New York to Albany. It so happens that the speaker manages a special collection of rare books, and the lecture was about this recent acquisition, but done in the form of a trip up the river. Both Kitt and I later remarked on how the librarian used the term “research rapture” several times (even defining it in his talk with the phrase that serves as our sub-title: “leaving no stone unturned”).

Why did he refer to his experience as “research rapture” and not just “research”? Because he wanted to share his delight in finding not only the names of different sites, villages, and geographical markers noted along the two shores of the Hudson, he wanted to find out why they were so named, or who the people were in individual places named for them, or whatever other background information might be available about these places. Taken together, this librarians’ experiences with research rapture had added immensely to our enjoyment of the lecture, and to our education about the history of one of our local historical treasures, the Hudson Valley.

When Kitt and I found ourselves speaking about research rapture, she had an intriguing perspective on the concept, particularly in her profession as a writer of fiction. Noting that she had never heard the term before, Kitt said that she was intrigued, and she also recognized where it came from:

“Using my background as both a librarian and multi-published novelist, I would share that the term applies not just to acts of performing research, but in obtaining the information needed for its use in what’s being written. It is not research just for the love of or sake of the process of research.”

Kitt was equally comfortable describing her reasoning for her thoughts about research rapture:

“For me there is also a pure love of knowledge, of insatiable curiosity.”

Sandra Kitt

“One of the major tenets for fiction writers, in particular in my area of creativity, is that you write about what you know. I have published more than 40 novels and novellas, and I readily admit to often writing about subjects, places, and professions about which I know absolutely nothing. This comes from a personal belief that a writer should be able to write about almost anything, given the proper attention to details, and to truths. I want to make sure I get it right, and to use what I’ve found with a voice of authenticity. It would not bode well for a reader to contact me or my publisher and announce that I don’t know what I’m writing about. For me there is also a pure love of knowledge, of insatiable curiosity. I know that when I take the time to do proper research and study a subject, I am going to learn something new. To me that’s very exciting and empowering.”

As a writer of fiction, though, Kitt is not completely sold on the slightly different approach to research rapture we are looking at here, even questioning Pidgeon’s suggestion of an addiction:

“In discussing this effort for such extensive research, the term ‘rapture’ may be a tad unfortunate, in that it also suggests, to me, an addiction, a euphoric state in which I might possibly swoon with the sheer joy of what I’ve discovered. In truth, that is not likely to happen. I thoroughly enjoy research but I’m not obsessive. If I can’t find exactly what I feel in need in my story, I leave it out or create something different. That’s what writers do. They create and invent when they have to.”

So for some authors, research might be, as Pidgeon says, an “addiction to looking things up.” For others, it’s something you do as a writer or as a researcher, and if it doesn’t yield usable results, you drop it and move on to something else.

Thirst for Knowledge

Even with those caveats, though, the situation also finds its way into the work we do in our professional lives. Although I have been researching and writing about knowledge services for more years than I care to remember, when I first started working in the field, knowledge services was a new way of thinking about managing an organization’s intellectual capital. It was characterized as a management approach that integrates information management, knowledge management, and strategic learning into an enterprise-wide function, and, yes, it was often described as my own “spin” (some said) on knowledge management (KM). That particular methodology had, with its recognition as a discipline in the early 1990s, been primarily taken up within the academic community (mostly in M.B.A. graduate programs) and in the management consulting field, but I was trying to take it beyond its limitations in those fields.

While I and many others worked to get knowledge services recognized as a viable management methodology as something other than KM and the usual approaches for working with KM, we could not move fast enough. And because of the knowledge services connections with KM and the almost built-in links knowledge services has with such fields as organizational development, leadership, change management, human capital, return-on-investment, and any number of other topics, a literature search through the many resources having to do with knowledge services would turn up an amazing (and often frustrating) list of related research opportunities, all begging to be studied.

And most of them, it turned out, in one way or another linked to knowledge management and had to be “stretched” (intellectually speaking) to connect with knowledge services. So those of us working with knowledge services research found ourselves – and still do, to some extent – in an almost textbook example of research rapture (although, to be fair, in the early days of knowledge services we would not have been using the term, as it had yet come into the research lexicon for management and the other disciplines later connected with knowledge services).

New Perspectives

As we consider research rapture or, better, if we want to sound a little more sophisticated and simply think of research as a type of work or an activity that is done – as one authority describes it – “to increase the stock of knowledge” – we also find ourselves thinking about what has come before. We realize that our light-hearted approach to research rapture and the fears of becoming too caught up in the process both come together to characterize research rapture as a modern concern.

If we look back in history and think about how research was done in the past – without the advantages of digitization and the electronic dissemination of information and knowledge and prior learning, we recognize that, for one thing, such gathering of what was known was the privilege of the educated and the well-to-do. Indeed, such intellectual pursuits were probably limited to universities, religious institutions, and similar organizations that could afford the time and support for such activities. And, in the thinking of many intellectuals involved in library management, academic work (teaching research methods, for example), and research, publishing, and similar work, we simply could not be doing the level of research work we do today if we were to find ourselves constrained under the conditions of earlier forms of research work.

“Should research rapture be recognized as part of the research process?”

Doesn’t it stand to reason, then, that research rapture, when we speak of it, must be a product of the digital age, leading us to wonder if research rapture – or whatever we want to call it – affects everyone who does research? Or should it be recognized as part of the research process, leading us to wonder if, from the academic point of view, we can teach research rapture? Should we give attention – for our students – to values that might accrue from taking up some level of research rapture (and if that is the case, shouldn’t we perhaps give it a different, more academically related, name)?

In today’s graduate programs, all – or most – include courses in research methods (usually required, in fact, for graduate students). But now I must go back to my own experience and describe how I’ve been able to work with the students who – as they prepare detailed course assignments and their theses – come up with high levels of research success and turn in assignments that put them at the higher end of the grading system.

In my work, I do not discuss the topic in classroom lectures (unless it fits into some specific discussion about research for this or that assignment). On the other hand, though, I am not shy about encouraging students when they come to me about their research experiences leading them to new and different ways of thinking about what their assignment choices. And in private mentoring, as we discuss their research, I never discourage them when they bring up a positive version of research rapture, of how going a little further, digging a little deeper (“leaving no stone unturned”) is good for them. And the results are always very good. Graduate students love to explore, and when they themselves are leading ­­– and following – the exploration path, it becomes a given that they will do well and prove that their learning has led them where they wanted to go.

[Title Image by Sean Stratton via Unsplash]

Guy St. Clair

Guy St. Clair is the series editor for De Gruyter’s “Knowledge Services” and currently teaches at Columbia University in the City of New York. A Life Member of the Special Libraries Association (SLA), Guy was President of SLA in 1991-1992. In 2019, he received the John Cotton Dana Award in recognition of his achievements in knowledge services and in library and information science.

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