case western reserve university



To Get the Right Answer, You Have to Ask the Right Question


When you rely on someone else to do research for you, you have to be willing and able to discuss what you know, what you do not know, what you need, and what you do not need. This is not an easy thing to do under any circumstances. We hope these suggestions will make it easier for you to ask the archivists to do research for you and will improve our chances of getting you the information you need.

Be Specific
It is human nature to start thinking about needed information in very general terms and work gradually to the specific aspects of the topic that are of interest to you, but it is not very efficient. If you are unsure, we can help you focus by explaining what kind of information on your topic is likely to be available. This process will be more efficient if you spend a few minutes thinking about your question before you contact us.
For example:
Asking, "Do you have the papers of former faculty?" is not the most effective way of finding out "Who is the Wittke Award named for?"
Tell Us What You Already Know
The background information you already have can give us useful clues to identify relevant sources so we can focus on what you need to know.
For example:
You will get a faster answer to, "Who is eligible for the Wittke Award?" if you tell us that you already know it was awarded for teaching excellence as early as the 1960s.
Consider the Sources
University records are created to accomplish some organizational activity and communicate among participants in that activity. Records must be interpreted. They are messy, ambiguous, contradictory, redundant, and (often) missing.

Archival control organizes records by provenance, not by subject. Records of a single entity (department, committee, office) are maintained as a unit, separate from the records created by other entities. Thus, information on a given topic is dispersed among the records of all the entities that needed information related to that topic to do their jobs. What this means is that almost never is there a single source which brings together all the information available on a given topic.

A single record is part of a process which created many records. Rarely does one document make sense outside the context of related records. Consequently, the finding aids created by archivists describe records as aggregates, not as individual items. What that means is that there is no catalog or index to each of the over 20,000,000 pages held by the Archives.

We're Not Being Nosy When We Ask You Questions
Most people who need information intend to use it for some purpose. We will be more likely to get you the information you need if we know why you need it and how you will use it. For example, someone writing an obituary about a Wittke Award winner needs a short phrase which summarizes the honor conferred by the award. Someone writing a dissertation on the relationship among honors, teaching load, and salary and their effect on faculty morale needs more complex information.

We want to use the limited time we can spend on your request most efficiently so you get the information you need. We will ask you these kinds of questions:

When do you need the information?

Which aspects of the topic are of interest to you? For example

  • •Do you want to know about the establishment of the Wittke Award - when it was established, who was involved?
  • •Do you want to know about the award process - who is eligible, what criteria are used, who makes the decision?
  • •Do you want to know about the recipients - their names, departments, and years they won the award?
  • •Do you want to know about the financial aspects - what is the source of support, who were the donors, what is the prize amount?

Do you need comprehensive or representative instances? For example:

During its first ten years, the Wittke Award was conferred on faculty from a range of departments, including Biology, Philosophy, and Dance.
During its first ten years, the Wittke Award was conferred on faculty from History; Biology; Linguistics; Dance; Fluid, Thermal and Aerospace Sciences; and Speech Communication.

Do you need summarized or detailed information? For example:

During its first ten years, The Wittke Award was conferred on ten faculty members.
During its first ten years, The Wittke Award was conferred on Arvel B. Erickson (1964), Carl Ubbelohde (1967), Robert P. Davis and Prosanta Kuman Saha (1971), Kathryn Karipedes and Joseph M. Prahl (1972), Georgia Lesh-Laurie and Carl W. Ubbelohde (1973), Mary Jean Thomas and B. Samuel Tanenbaum (1974).

Do you want factual or evaluative information? For example:

Carl Ubbelohde received the Carl F. Wittke Award for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching in 1967 and 1973.
"Dr. Ubbelohde emerges as the rising star of the history department. His students had nothing but howling praise for his stimulating approach to the course. His lectures were well organized, humorous, and often dramatic. As the students put it: 'Dr. Ubbelohde's enthusiasm for the material was contagious,' 'Best lecturer in the University,' 'Great Prof!' etc." [4GE 1:13 The Student's Guide to Faculty and Courses, Fall 1966]
Don't Use Intermediaries
If you do ask someone else to contact the Archives for you, please make sure your helper is fully briefed so he or she can discuss what you need.
Let Us Help
Many of our users want to be helpful. They guess where the information they need might be found and ask us for a copy of the source instead of asking for the needed information. When the needed information is not where they guessed it would be, the result is a frustrated user and a lot of wasted time and effort. Tell us what you need to know. It is our job to know where to find it. This does not, of course, apply if what you need is a specific document. In that case, by all means ask for it.
Don't Be Shy
Even if you can not follow any of our advice, even if you do not know where to start, even if you have only a vague idea about what you need; if you need information about CWRU or its predecessors, do not hesitate to ask. We love a challenge.