Researchers say information's there for the asking That's a fact

July 30, 1994|By Elizabeth Austin

Knowledge is power, right? You bet. Who doesn't want all the answers -- from such mundane trivia as how to remove candle wax from tablecloths to larger issues, like figuring out whether your salary is commensurate with your skills or if a proposed landfill will endanger your water supply. Most of us have the energy and curiosity needed to track down elusive data bits but just don't know where to start.

We decided to ask some prominent journalists for help. Their fundamental principle of investigative reporting? People love to talk.

And, the most willing sources are often little-known experts in arcane fields, or government researchers who compile massive reports that no one outside their departments is likely to read. "Think of all those people on the staff of the congressman who's on the 6 o'clock news, who wrote every word he says," says Scott Shuger, a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly. "Those faceless, nameless people, if prompted correctly, would love to be a little less faceless and a little less nameless."

Of course, it doesn't do much good to find an expert who's willing -- nay, determined -- to tell you all about electrical defibrillation when what you're really interested in is electrolytic depilation. So the first step is simple: Do your homework.

Your first stop is a reference library, either in person or via computer modem. (If your local public library lacks a good reference department, most colleges and universities allow public access to research collections.)

"When I want to investigate something I know nothing about, I try to find written information -- newspapers and magazines," says Kukula Glastris, a reporter for U.S. News & World Report and a former researcher for Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law. "I'll read it, and then I'll start calling the people who seem to know the most about that subject."

We assume you're familiar with the basics: the card catalog, the dictionary, the atlas, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. But those high-school reference standbys are just kid stuff. If you know where to look, your library can provide astonishing reservoirs of unexpected information.

Among the basic reportorial tools is the city directory, which gives a recent name and phone number for every address in town. If you know an address, you can find out the resident's name and telephone number, and those of his neighbors as well. (If you have a telephone number and need a name and address, call 411 and ask for the number of the reverse directory in your area.)

Depending on your request, the librarian may direct you to some lesser-known research bibles. Want to investigate your company's solvency? Check out the "Encyclopedia of Business Information Sources." To learn the number of school-bus accidents in 1987, consult the Congressional Information Service's "American Statistics Index," a guide to just about every statistic available in the United States.

For digging up government information, Scott Shuger swears by "The Capital Source," a listing of "all the numbers you'd ever want in the Federal government," plus think tanks and policy groups. There's also "Lesko's Info-Power" (Information USA) by Matthew Lesko, a gold mine of government information.

Most good libraries also offer computer databases, some free, some not. Don't be shy about asking for help in searching efficiently, particularly when confronted with Nexis, the most comprehensive (and expensive) service.

Human contacts

Now you're ready to track down some live humans. And the best human-tracking device is: "The Encyclopedia of Associations."

This three-volume guide to trade associations, interest groups and clubs is "the best source of information that I've ever found," says Pat Clinton, a Northwestern University journalism professor and former magazine editor. "The associations have people who do nothing but answer dumb questions every day. They publish newsletters. They publish pamphlets. They know who the active experts are in the field. Andit's not just scholarly and trade organizations. There are 25 Elvis fan clubs in the most recent edition I looked at."

Suppose toxic wastes from the dump site next door are bubbling merrily up through your basement drain. Through the "Encyclopedia of Associations," you can find support groups for waste-dump neighbors -- or toxic-victims' rights associations -- that can relay your plight to the local newspaper.

When you're trying to find experts, remember: The enemy of your enemy is your friend.

If you're having trouble getting information from a high-handed bank or a low-profile company, "find somebody who hates them," advises New York City journalist Larry Doyle. "They'd just love to give you the lowdown."

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