Searching For Time Travel

Suppose you’re about to write a research paper on the topic of time travel. You’re free to take it anywhere you like—your only constraints are time, and your willingness to explore different sources of information and ideas. So what exactly would you write about? Your most immediate thoughts may associate with popular culture or science fiction—including the likes of Doctor Who or Captain Kirk, correcting a past mistake to save us all from future disaster. Alternatively, perhaps you’re seeking an escape from the ills of humanity, abandoning the world as we know it for a utopia unimaginably far in the future.

If any of these ideas sound appealing for a writing project, you may also be interested to know about a particularly timely opportunity for you to take things a step further, because on May 20th, selected papers will be presented at “A Celebration of Time Travel,” the theme of this year’s Pop Culture Conference, hosted by DePaul’s College of Communication (it’s not too late to participate—the deadline for submitting an abstract is March 3rd).

Whether or not you’re intending to present at the conference, you’ll get the most out of your time and your writing endeavor with a little research and advance preparation. And there’s no better place to start than the Library’s Popular Culture Research Guide —a convenient source of guidance and resources for researching popular media phenomena across the fields of entertainment, literature, and other disciplines and information genres. The guide points to enticing books and links to relevant background information sources, article databases and online collections that you can use to identify different paths and options for your time travel writing adventure—including those that have been less well-traveled (and possibly more interesting!). And should you feel inclined to venture beyond “popular” notions of popular culture, the guide can point you to other subject-based Research Guides that help you identify a research focus that “fits” with your particular interests and strengths—including guides encompassing the realms of philosophy, religion, art and literature, not to mention science or mathematics.

Wherever you are in your research process, also be sure to make full use of the various Ask A Librarian services and resources provided through the library website—including Chat, Email, Make an Appointment, or in-person at the Research Help desk, where super-friendly and helpful librarians are eager to assist—at any stage of your writing project. If you’re up for an adventure, librarians make perfect travel partners for exploring the information universe—in all its four dimensions. Before you find yourself floating in a confusing and disorientating mess of Google search results, and while your ideas are still materializing and coalescing, librarians can help you navigate and make sense of the vast quantities of available information. Whether your interests appear novel or timeworn, abstract or tangible, broad or narrow, nebulous or defined, we can help you seek out new and unexplored options for your research focus, and help in ways you can’t possibly imagine!

When you conduct your searches, librarians recommend you use library databases. Unlike search engines, databases won’t frustrate you with mysterious and quirky algorithms and biases that are the bane of Internet searching (though Google may be a better bet if you’re in the market to buy a time machine). Databases draw from curated collections of information sources, and generate results based on logical and transparent algorithms that seek matches of your keywords to terms expressed in article records (e.g. within Titles, Abstracts, Authors, or Subject Headings).

Whether you’re looking for “time travel” references that are literal or literary, tangible or metaphorical, the best databases to start your searches are those covering a broad range of different subjects. For example, searching the database Web of Science with the phrase “time travel” (using quotes to denote the exact phrase) will generate a rich assortment of content strewn across multiple subject areas and disciplines.

Visualization of subject categories in the Web of Science search: “time travel”

Another way to explore your options is to search across the sixty-four different databases provided through the EBSCOhost search platform. Refining your results by Subject Term reveals a diverse, eclectic, and possibly surprising assortment of subject areas. Besides the appearance of Subject Terms we might anticipate (“Time Travel,” “History,” “Conventions,” “Forecasting,” “Physics”), you may be surprised by the frequent occurrence of Subject Terms such as “Tourism,” “Travel Agents,” and “Airline Industry.” However, don’t panic, you did nothing wrong! It’s just that databases ignore the appearance of commas, periods—and various other punctuation marks—appearing at the end of phrases or sentences (in-between the words “time” and “travel”). In this particular example, you could exclude most of the irrelevant articles (including those published in Time magazine’s “Travel” section!) by limiting your search to words appearing in the title or subject headings. And that, of course, is just one example of the many ways your librarian “co-pilot” can help you keep on course with your searching!

Other things you can find out along the way include how to expand the scope of meaning associated with your “time travel” concept—including figurative or abstract usages, as well as those that are more literal or tangible. For instance, searching the plural form “time travels” would look for matches in records expressing the idea that “time travels” at different rates (e.g. more slowly when watching a pot boil, or, speaking relatively, when hovering near to a black hole).

Alternatively, your research focus may be swaying more towards the idea of “time traveling” or “time travelers,” or perhaps “time traveler’s” (as in: The Time Traveler’s Wife). While our Sci-Fi fantasies might suggest otherwise, for now at least, databases are best treated like robots – they need specific instructions as to what to look for. And when it seems you’re not getting through to them, that would be yet another great time to Ask A Librarian!

For the time being then, we hope some of these ideas might offer at least an inkling of what librarians can do to help support your research. Whether your interests gravitate towards science fiction, history, literature or science (including special relativity!), just remember to start with a mind that’s open to possibilities, and know that the library will be ready and waiting to support your “time travel” adventure.

One Reply to “Searching For Time Travel”

  1. Thanks for this! Enjoyed reading it and fascinated to learn about the Pop Culture Conference! Catch those students where they are!

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