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Just to shore up my credibility, I’m going to give you a bit of biography. If I can, I’m going to keep that part to one short paragraph, and then I’ll get to the good stuff.

I was an extremely mediocre debater in high school. In four years, I never once cleared at a tournament. In my defense, the Dallas area was one of the bloodiest arenas for high school debate in the country: St. Mark’s, Greenhill, Newman-Smith, Plano, Highland Park, South Garland, all had teams at one time or another that were among the top handful nationwide. But because of my frustration with four long years of being cannon fodder, I chose a college (Baylor) by the strength of its debate team. Baylor was a good choice on that count: my senior year in high school, they won the National Debate Tournament. My first year in college, we came in second, and my sophomore year, we won again. (Not me personally, although they did read cards I’d cut. I improved in college, but I was never a knockout debater. My success came later, in coaching.)

I say all that to bolster my assertion that what I am about to describe is the best way to approach a new topic. This is the way we started our season each of those three years, and in each of those three years, we finished up no worse than #2 in the United States. Starting my junior year, we had a sharp drop-off in work ethic, and we didn’t start the season right. It showed. In fact, it showed all season long.

Enough of that. Here’s what we did.

First, we took a road trip to a good library. Fond as I am of Baylor, Moody Memorial Library was not terribly good back in the late eighties. Much better were the Sterling Evans library at Texas A&M,  and the Perry-Castañeda library at UT-Austin. We’d pass the hat to get a whole mess of quarters and enough money to buy a community borrower library card. Then the fun started.

We went straight to the shelves. In the LOC numbering system, India’s ID is HC 435. Start there. Go down the shelves, picking up every book and opening it. Skim the table of contents. Glance at the first sentence of every paragraph for the first two or three pages of the book, and then flip to the last couple of pages and do the same thing. Don’t take more than about thirty seconds per book. Make a snap judgment: keep or put back.

You do screen by recency, of course. In most college libraries, they include the copyright year as part of the call number, especially for recent books. We probably capped it at six or seven years back, so you might want to put back anything earlier than, say, 2001, unless the book was titled “Why changes in United States foreign policy toward India risk human extinction and eternal damnation.”

After we’d done books, we went to journals. Most good college libraries keep the bound copies of back issues of the journals in order by LOC number, which means any journals unique to India would also be at HC 435. You’d also look at journals that were more generally about Asia, and probably the usual suspect foreign policy journals like (obviously) Foreign Policy, Foreign Relations, and a lot of others. (Those are mostly in D and E.) Again, look at the table of contents in each issue, and any articles that look remotely useful or interesting, read first sentences of paragraphs at the start and finish and get a sense of whether it’s worth the cost of photocopying. Once you’re done with the bound copies, check the current issues, which are usually in loose stacks on shelves, again arranged alphabetically by LOC number. There’s no particular reason that you have to do bound and then current; as a matter of fact, I think we usually did it the other way around. But either way works.

Journals don’t circulate, of course, so you have to photocopy them. The way we made first-years pay their dues, me included, was putting them on eight to ten hour shifts of pushing the green button on the photocopier over and over again. We called it getting the Xerox tan.  We also made it a point to bring along enough scrap paper to use for bookmarks to mark the articles we wanted copied, because dog-earing pages was vandalism, and we didn’t believe in that. The materials were in good condition when we got them, so we put them back in good condition.

We would arrive back home from our road trip with boxes and boxes of articles and books. We would then take over a big room and begin sorting them, coming up with categories at the very beginning (obviously) and adjusting them as we discovered we had a lot of material on one subject, or not very much on another. Then we took a look at the size of the piles, made an educated guess as to the strategic utility of each subject (Is this a possible affirmative? A negative argument? Something else useful?) and handed out assignments.

Here is the very simple and very powerful reason that this worked: we let the research fuel our imagination, instead of using our imagination to decide what to research. We didn’t guess about what was out there: we found out. And forgive me for repeating myself, but it’s a strategy that worked. When we went to the first wave of tournaments in the fall, no one else had any surprises for us, and we definitely had some surprises for other schools. We knew what was in the literature, and that was strength beyond measure.

All of that happened before we had the internet. Does the internet change things? I don’t think it changes anything I’ve written above, because I think you ought to do everything I’ve written above before you do your first Ebsco, Lexis, or Scholar Google search (or whatever else you’re using these days). A bunch of journals, and nearly all books, aren’t available on-line. If you’re debating someone who’s done all on-line research,  and a big chunk of yours isn’t, then you’ve got a leg  up. You can track down their sources and figure out how to defeat their positions in a matter of a few minutes and a few clicks, while your arguments have a lot more longevity, and the cost of tracking them down in time and effort is a lot greater.

The other thing I’ll point out is that the art to doing on-line research requires coming up with the best search terms. And where do your search terms come from? If you sit down at the computer first, then they come from your head, and that limits you. But if you do a sweep of the library, by the time you first sit down at a computer, you’ll already have a wealth of good keywords to use to find more good stuff: names of Indian leaders, names of Indian programs, terms of art (anyone know what BRIC is?), names of good authors who write good material, and so forth.

That’s my advice. Start in the library, and start broad. Be a filter-feeder, and let what comes up over and over again guide you. Doing it any other way is starting the season a step behind.

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