Finding Data in Documents and Datasets

Categories: Contemporary Issues, Data Collection, Online Research, Research, Research Design, Research Roles, Research Skills


In the first quarter of 2021 we explored design steps, starting with a January focus on Finding the Question. We learned more about the design stage in February by focusing on Choosing Methodology and MethodsThe March focus was on Designing an Ethical Study.

In the second quarter our focus moved from the design stage to the data collection stage. Our focus for April was on Collecting Data from & with Participants and next, we are focusing on Finding Data in Documents and Datasets. You will find the unfolding series through this link.

Finding Data in Documents and Datasets

Researchers have many options when it comes to using documents or datasets. We can study handwritten diary pages or analyze Big Data. We can conduct the whole project without leaving our computers or trek to an archive to handle original artifacts and documents. While some research using documents or datasets is conducted without directly interacting with the individuals who created the materials, other options do involve consenting participants. We will explore this wide range of possibilities on MethodSpace during the month of May.

When trying to sort out types of extant data for Doing Qualitative Research Online, I identified three categories: historical, contemporary, and emergent. I used the term term materials to acknowledge that extant data can include visuals such as photographs, films or media, drawings or maps, or objects. Big Data or datasets can include any or all of these types of data.


Historical materials. Some materials from the pre-Internet era need to be reviewed by hand. However, news or magazine articles, letters, diaries, oral histories, maps, census or government records, photographs, speech, radio or film clips are just some of the kinds of materials now being scanned and made available electronically. Extensive collections of historical materials can be accessed from libraries, museums, national or foundation archives, historical societies, and other sites. Some collections require permission, others are open to anyone. Historical materials can also be privately held: families have pictures, writings, and other treasures from past generations.

Contemporary materials. These materials are digital natives, created in and for the digital age. They typically have internal or external links to related media or other sources, or are interactive. Materials created in the late 20th and 21st century are likely to have an electronic version, even if they were also released in print. For example, a business researcher can find annual reports that were distributed as print brochures but also posted on their website.

While you can find contemporary materials in online libraries and other archives, you can also find them open-access, on the public web. Permission might be needed to get into private or organizational databases, or to use proprietary or government materials.

Emergent materials. Materials are being created every minute of the day when Internet users log on and post. Emergent materials are characterized by their immediacy; they might be temporary, seen in the moment then replaced by new posts. Emergent materials include posted comments and media, questions and responses in online discussion forums, groups, games, communities, blogs and/or social media. Private types of emergent materials could include emails and 1-to-1 messaging.

(Salmons, 2016)

Using Materials, Documents and Datasets

What types of data will fit your qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods research project? Will you need permission or consent to access or use the type(s) you select? Do you want to discuss selected materials with participants to gain new perspectives or interpretations? How can you organize and understand the data you collect? These are the kinds of questions we will explore on MethodSpace this month! You will find original posts and links to open-access or library resources through this link.

Salmons, J. (2016). Doing qualitative research online. London: SAGE Publications.

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