If there’s anything that I think needs to be learned through experience or through directly witnessing the experience of others, it’s online information-seeking. I don’t think you can give a useful general description of how to search that a student can usefully refer back to while doing their own research. When I teach research methods in the classroom, I often concentrate on doing real-time, live searches based on suggested topics from the class while narrating some of the ideas and choices I’m thinking about as I go from one resource to the next.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I had a great search experience that I think is worth laying out here, because it captures three of the key dimensions of digital search:
1. Moving from one resource to another, what I sometimes analogize to a sailboat tacking back and forth in the wind
2. How and when you have to know something in order to find anything
3. When you’ve hit the end of what’s knowable online and need to move outside of digital search to know anything more
While we were out to lunch on Saturday, my wife mentioned that she’d recently found out her deceased paternal grandmother’s maiden name in the course of filling out some forms on behalf of her mother. Idly, my wife observed that the name might help her learn a bit more about a story that her grandmother always told about her father (my wife’s great-grandfather), about how he had been a war hero in his native Crete, that he’d held up a flag in some sort of battle in a way that rallied or inspired his fellow soldiers. She was told that there was a plaque or monument to him in his hometown of Crete and that his deed was well-known to Cretans. My wife had always been curious about this story: I remember her telling me about it when we were first married, over 20 years ago.
“What’s the name,” I asked.
“Kajiadelakis is what the funeral home had in their records,” she said. I got out my iPhone and fired up Google. No documents.
Here’s the first place where you’d have to know something to get something. Many people know that immigrants to the United States often truncated or changed names upon arrival, and at the least, they often had to invent anglicized spellings of names written in non-Roman alphabets. Like, for example, Greek. So I tried “Kagiadelakis”, the most obvious alternative spelling I could think of.
Two big hits. First, this page from a wax museum in the town of Zoniana, Crete. (The location is something I figured out shortly afterwards.) Midway down the page? A picture of a wax figure of Sotiros Kagiadelakis. Holding a flag on a wall, his gun behind the flag. I back up some and look at the wax museum, which turns out to be an interestingly eccentric personal project in a small village in the center of Crete. Gives me some sense that my wife’s great-grandfather is enough of an iconic figure in modern Cretan history to “make the cut” in this kind of production of historical memory.
(This was one of those moments that kind of blows you away about the technological changes we’ve experienced in our lives. Here I am at a restaurant in downtown Philadelphia, my wife asks a complicated question about a lifelong curiosity she’s had and I whip out a little device that lets me find a big part of the answer while we wait for the next tapas dish to arrive.)
The second hit gives me some key context and the information I need to move on to more searches. It’s a PDF of a newsletter in Greek and French (I’ve linked to the crawled HTML version.) In a section on Elefterios Venizelos, a famous Cretan nationalist, there is a passage about a soldier named Spyros Kagiadelakis raising the flag. At first, all I notice is the mention of his name and that it mentions another name that he’s known by, Kagieles.
I read the whole section of the PDF (dusting off my infrequently used French) and this solves the next issue I’ve got in my mind, namely what conflict this story comes from. In January 1897, I learn, “Muslims” (I’m assuming Ottoman Turks) attack Greeks in Hania, Rethymno and Heraklion (I don’t yet know where these are at this point in the search, but shortly I find out that they are cities in Crete). Cretan revolutionaries respond by demanding unification with Greece. (My heart is sinking a bit, because I am realizing this story is tied up in the history of modern Greece, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and the politics of Balkan nationalism in the run-up to World War I, of which I know just enough to know that this is going to be a really complicated, intricate history.) The major European powers of the day send a peacekeeping fleet to Crete and tell the revolutionaries to stand down. They refuse, so the European fleet bombards the Cretan forces, who have hoisted the Greek flag. The flagpole is hit and the flag falls, but Spyros Kagiadelakis picks up the Greek flag and holds it up in a defiant gesture. The PDF concludes that the bravery of this gesture so impresses the fleet that they cease their bombardment.
I also find out that there is a statue of Spyros Kagiadelakis that was put up in 1997 in Prophitis Ilias in Canee, which I’m guessing (correctly) is a French spelling of a location in mainland Greece or Crete.
At this point I know a lot, and it’s largely consistent with the story my wife remembers hearing as a child. The main difference is that she was always told that her great-grandfather was in a battle with the Turks, but I can already see how her relatives saw it that way. Still, the background here intrigues me, and I’m going to want to search up more about that. First, though, a quick search of the other name, Kagieles. This produces a hit back to the PDF and a false hit to a very weird site that appears to be about psychedelic mushrooms.
How about the statue? Where’s Prophitis Ilias, I wonder? A search to that produces a bunch of places in Greece, rather as if I’d typed in “Saint Peter”. Where’s Canee? The word by itself is useless, but how about Canee, Crete? Ah: it’s the city of Chania, and a search of “Chania Prophitis Ilias statue” reveals there’s a hill and a memorial site dedicated to Elefterios Venizelos above Chania. I think I’ve found where the statue was erected in 1997. Let’s try Flickr with the search terms Chania Crete statue. And bam, there’s the statue in a bunch of pictures. And the captions give me another alternative spelling of Kagieles: Spiros Kayiales.
That name opens up some more information. The statue was put up by the Pancretan Association of America, and there’s quite a bit of information on them at their Facebook page, which is hit because it has Kayiales in it. Their web site is an obvious target for some more searches later. There’s a nice description of the Venizelos graves from a blog kept by an English couple who are living in Chania (here I discover that the city is also known by the name Hania). Amusingly, I see that they’ve had no luck finding out anything about Spiros Kayiales on the web, which shows you a bit about how much of a role luck plays in all this. I started with the “right” name to bring me to the PDF which gave me the key details. If I’d started as they did, I’d have had a much worse time of it.
The rest of the Spiros Kayiales hits are to pictures of the statue. Let’s try one more thing, the name of the Italian admiral in the PDF, Carnevaro. This, I quickly discover, also has another spelling, Canevaro. That plus Crete in Google leads me to a very informative Cretan travel page. That gives me a really specific date, February 9 1897 and an intensely detailed account of the incident. It also gives me a name for my wife’s great-great grandfather, my wife’s great-grandfather’s hometown, a bunch of other personal details, a note that Admiral Canevaro’s memoirs describe the incident.
And, jackpot, a website dedicated to the man himself, though it’s in Greek. I am desperately wishing that I read Greek, but I get a lot of information just from looking at the pictures and such. (There appears to be a photo of my wife’s grandmother on the page and possibly some other family members that my wife hasn’t seen in many decades.) I’ve also got yet another spelling of the name, which turns up other resources, including an article in an issue of the Pancretan Association’s magazine.
If I want to know more about the statue, the man, the incident, I’ll need to leave search environments and start emailing people, having conversations, and reading books. Maybe even travel to Crete: could make for a really interesting family trip. I certainly have enough to see and talk about at this point.
Still, I want to know a bit more about context. So I start searching for information about Cretan nationalism and about the Greco-Turkish war of 1897. It is, as I guessed, a really complex history. I actually hadn’t known that Crete was not part of Greece until the end of the First Balkan War in 1913, having briefly been an international protectorate between 1897 and 1913 and before that under Ottoman control even after the Greek mainland won independence. The incident which won Spyros Kayiales/Spiros Kayales/Spiros Kagiadelakis his fame was basically the kick-off to the Greco-Turkish war of 1897. The history of Cretan nationalism, particularly in the mid-1890s, is an obvious area of interest if I want to know more about the man himself and how he came to be holding there up that flag. I’m also fascinated by the fact that the bombardment came from a joint European fleet, not the Turkish navy. There are more than a few curious resonances between this history and a lot of global politics in the early 21st Century. Still, here I’ve arrived at another point where a full-fledged research project is staring me in the face, where I ought to leave Wikipedia behind and dig into historical scholarship.
Still, I can think of one more thing I can do just sitting at the computer in my home office. I drop into Tripod, our college catalog, to see what I can find. There’s not a lot there on the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, though I discover that the novelist Stephen Crane wrote war correspondence from the war itself (I think beginning after the incident in Crete). Checking with the Library of Congress catalog, I see that there’s a goodly amount of primary material on the war and not much of a secondary literature in English. (Some in Greek and Turkish, though.) There’s a few works from the time that I suspect will have a narrative account of the incident in Crete.
I go into the historical newspapers indices through our catalog (behind a password wall, so no links). I get a sense right away of the specific events about Crete in the last half of 1896 into 1897, in particular that in the days before the bombardment of the Cretan revolutionaries there had been serious violence between Muslims and Christians in several cities, including Chania. The British newspapers don’t describe the bombing incident directly, but I’m guessing with some more poking around, I may turn up some specific narrative. I’m not that surprised, though: what looms large in the memory of one community, sanctified through nationalist memory, is a footnote from the perspective of an imperial metropolis. Again, to know more about context, I’ll have to leave behind what a digital search lays out for me, and dive deeper into historical scholarship.
The key things to take away from the story of a search like this one are:
1) Serendipidity counts. If I started this search from the wrong place, I’d have gotten nowhere. It all starts with the museum in Zoniana.
2) Multiple iterations of the same search with different keywords turn up notably different results, each of which iterates further into separate branches of information. Harvesting keywords in each generation or branch of a search is the key art of searching.
3) Knowing when to stop travelling down one branching series of searches to come back to the central “spine” of inquiry is crucial.
4) Knowing when you’ve hit a point of diminishing returns within digital environments, at which point you need to go read authoritative scholarship, make personal contacts, or have direct experiences, is critical to success.
5) You have to know a few things already, or at least be able to make educated guesses. I got as far as I did because I know something about the effect of immigration on the spelling of names, because I could hack out a rough reading of a French document, because I know a bit about conflicts in the Balkans and the end of the Ottoman Empire, and so on.