How to Find Out Anything
We’ve already seen how Google, when used in conjunction with public databases, can help us find things on our own. But what about those times when we need to have a subject explained to us? Or when we need an expert to show us the way? Or when we need an answer immediately and don’t have the time to learn about a subject ourselves? That’s where associations come in.
Types of Associations
As a source for information, few things are better than associations because there’s an association—or guild or society—for just about everything, no matter how obscure or rarefied. If one single human being embraces a passion or falls in love with some irresistible interest that fires her mind and soul, someone else in this good green world will discover it too. And these two will find each other. It’s uncanny how people with similar interests—those proverbial birds of a feather—find one another, and when they do, they form associations. This urge to associate joins death and taxes on the list of life’s certainties.
As you will quickly discover, associations exist for activities ranging from the sublime to the unspeakable. Some are formal professional organizations, such as the American Bar Association for lawyers and the American Medical Association for doctors. Others may be industry groups that exist to promote mercantile interests, such as the Corn Refiners Association, the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association, and the Association of Apparel and Textile Exporters in Bulgaria. Still others may be activist groups that take a stand on political or social issues, such as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), the Environmental Defense Fund, and the anti-tax Club for Growth. Many associations are recreational in nature. Consider the Norwegian Canoe Association, USA Badminton Association, and the Brewers Association. Some groups function quite literally as matchmakers: Parents Without Partners introduces the mamas to the papas, and the World Footbag Association dreams of the day in which no one hacky-sacks alone. In short, if you need information on a subject, you can bet that there is an association just itching to lead you down the path to enlightenment.
Not only do associations exist for virtually every imaginable subject but they all share one thing in common: They know their business. An association is not merely a bubbly convocation of people who work in the same industry; it is a repository of knowledge for a specific subject and, within the confines of its interest, can be counted on to deliver a credible point of view. Say, for example, that as part of a marketing campaign, you need to know how many women own handguns in the suburban counties of Minnesota. You could try to track down studies yourself, or you could do what experienced researchers do: Pick up the phone, call the National Rifle Association, and ask one of its experts.
An association is a repository of knowledge for a specific subject and can be counted on to deliver a credible point of view.
Associations are A-list go-to sources because they love to answer questions. If you show even the slightest bit of interest in an association’s subject matter—on the phone, by email, or even in person—a reputable association will make sure you get to know everything you want. They are nothing if not zealous. Think of associations as the positive, helpful, and interesting flip side to the motormouth at a party who can’t stop talking about himself. Associations are great because they’ll keep talking if you keep asking.
Consider this tale of an old flag. I came across it while reading the newspaper. The moral of the story will become clear soon enough.
Back in 1992, a Long Island antiques buff named Gary Laube bought an old trunk at an estate sale. He didn’t want the trunk; he wanted the antique blanket he saw inside. Yet, when he got the trunk home and started rummaging through it, Laube discovered it held more than a musty old coverlet. Hidden away inside, underneath the blanket, was a tattered old flag. This was no Betsy Ross project, with stars and stripes and patriotic reds, whites, and blues, but a beat-up piece of cloth with a pine tree pictured on it. The flag was American, that much was obvious, but even an experienced antiques hunter like Laube couldn’t guess its history. So he set out to find more about his unexpected bonus.
Fast-forward fourteen years, to July 3, 2006, when Newsday staff writer Bill Bleyer picked up the story. As Bleyer tells it, what Laube stumbled upon turned out to be an extraordinarily rare, pre-Revolutionary War flag that likely had been flown during the French and Indian War, perhaps in colonial Connecticut. To flesh out his story, Bleyer quoted Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center, who noted, “This is a pre-Revolutionary military color…. We don’t know of any other pre-Revolutionary pine tree flags,” as well as David Martucci, a flag appraiser and former president of the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), who pegged the value of the flag at $1 million to $2 million.
The discovery of a historic artifact is a fascinating story by itself. But even more interesting, for our purposes, is that peculiar word vexillological. Until I read the Newsday account of Laube’s find, I had no idea the word even existed. And unless you collect yachting pennants for fun, I would guess that it’s not part of your everyday vocabulary either. Having never given much thought to flag experts, I figured that Bleyer probably interviewed all two of them for his article. After all, how many flag mavens can this world hold?
As it turns out, loads of them. Using Google to search with the words “vexillology” “association” quickly reveals that there are far more flag fanciers in the world than you’d ever suspect. I discovered a self-contained world of banner buffs hiding in plain sight. In short order, a researcher in need of information about flags—and not just the million-dollar antique variety—will find organizations and individuals for whom flags are not merely something to salute on a flagpole or wave at NASCAR races but the very stuff that makes their hearts flutter. You may not be able to tell a nautical ensign from a regimental banner, but distinguishing them would be a breeze to the members of such groups as the National Flag Foundation and the New England Vexillological Association, in addition to the aforementioned NAVA. There are even institutions such as the William Crampton Library, named for one of the world’s leading vexillologists, and the Flag Institute, a British group of flag wavers who offer collections of reference materials.
This tale of the rare flag and the experts who can testify to its rarity and great worth brings home the point of this chapter: Find the right association, and in one place you’ll have experts to quote, guides to additional information, and an attributable source. Good researchers like Bleyer know this reflexively and appreciate just how helpful an association can be when trying to navigate through unfamiliar subjects or highly specialized types of information. This is especially true when your research project involves scientific, academic, or other complex data.
Find the right association, and in one place you’ll have experts to quote, guides to additional information, and an attributable source.
Mining Association Information
What type of information might an association provide? It depends to a great degree on what the aim of the group is—industry representation or political lobbying or informal gathering of fans—and how well funded it is. Associations can provide everything from factual data to opinions. When you need to pick someone else’s brain for a change, turn to an association for the information.
For every political idea, social policy, or disease, an association stands by to explain and defend the cause to the public. Advocacy organizations lobby for changes in the law and send polished spokespeople out to the media to elegantly tell their stories to the public. Take the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids as an example. While most believe discouraging children from smoking cigarettes is a laudable goal, the tobacco industry might think otherwise. So with facts, figures, and sound bites as its weapons, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids wages battle against the tobacco industry’s $36-million-a-day marketing efforts with some savvy PR of its own, notably at the “Research Center” on the campaign’s website. The association serves up “Fact Sheets” packed with information so that reporters, researchers, and advocates for children’s health won’t have to do the digging themselves.
For every political idea, social policy, or disease, an association stands by to explain and defend the cause to the public.
Need to follow the money in politics? The site’s “Tobacco PAC Contributions” reveals into whose pockets all those industry dollars flow. And in the collection of “Special Reports,” the campaign offers in-depth analysis of leading issues, such as a report bolstering the idea that higher cigarette prices do in fact reduce consumption. What the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids does is no different from what other associations that want to shape public opinion do. They research their special subjects so the public doesn’t have to. If they’re giving it away, take it.
Energetic advocates like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids stay on top of the news and are excellent sources for timely or even controversial material. In 1998, the attorneys general of several states reached a settlement with tobacco companies over the cost of Medicaid attributed to treating diseases caused by smoking in state hospitals. At the law firm where I then worked, the partner and his team needed me to get a copy of the settlement as soon as it was publicly available. As they reminded me, time was of the essence. The first website to publish the settlement documents didn’t belong to one of the parties to the agreement, as you might expect, but to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who cared as passionately about the topic as the lawyers did.
Advocacy groups bend over backward to publicize their causes and are delighted to share information with anyone who needs it. They do the no-glamour digging for facts, which they give away in hopes of earning attention for their cause.
Legal advocacy isn’t the only type of support associations provide. In their efforts to influence public opinion, associations are inveterate letter writers and paper publishers, issuing white papers that detail their position on social issues. Some groups that speak for a profession, like the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), can even define standards for a given discipline. On its website, it’s pleased to offer the public access to its position papers. Dear to their professional hearts are topics such as “Equity in Science Education,” “Characteristics of Exemplary Life Science Teaching,” and “Teaching About Environmental Issues.”
Likewise, the Specialty Coffee Association of America shares with the world its “Sustainability Statement”: a bullet-pointed aspirational list of what the industry ought to do to encourage environmentally friendly coffee agribusiness. If you need an opinion on public policy, an association can be counted on to provide both the opinion and the facts and figures to back it up.
For factual information, use your common sense. You don’t need me to tell you that the rules of safe boating can be found on the website of the National Safe Boating Council, that the price of gold on February 18, 2010, is available from the London Bullion Market Association, or that the number of registered Republicans in the United States can be verified by the Republican National Committee. Define your problem and think of who would have an interest in providing an answer. A relevant association can usually deliver an authoritative answer very quickly. (In the next section, I’ll show you how to locate associations.) When searching an association’s website for information, calling its library, or contacting a spokesperson, you’ll find associations generally are happy to hand over facts, numbers, and other verifiable details just by asking.
Studies and Reports
Commissioning studies and then writing reports on the results is oxygen to most associations: It’s what they do. Any group that can afford a telephone, an office, and a website probably is putting together research for the edification of its members—and the general public. Take a look at the National Association of Counties, which offers county officials guides on social policy. At the moment, it is giving away its surveys on the impact of methamphetamine abuse on local municipalities to help county executives better grapple with drug abuse. Or see what the New Mexico Association of Food Banks says on how to improve the distribution of foodstuffs to needy New Mexicans. What’s in it for the association? Publicity, certainly, along with the opportunity to define issues on its own terms and sway public opinion. Plus, in the web era, it doesn’t cost anything to put up a link to a document. Information wants to be free, right?
When it comes to white papers, keep in mind the thinking-like-a-detective way of approaching information gathering. The meat and potatoes of the reports is valuable for its own sake, but the good stuff lives in the fine print. Footnotes and bibliographies provide more nuanced explanations and links to additional materials. Track down the quoted experts. Read those studies closely for the additional nuggets of wisdom lurking inside those formal reports. What seems like slogging at first glance is actually sleuthing and frequently pays off handsomely in additional information about your research subject.
Studies may be specially commissioned by an association or written by its staff. Associations are often made up of professionals who produce reports backed by academic credentials and experience in the field. But regardless of the author, associations stand behind their publications, giving you the benefit of an attributable source.
For a textbook example of a helpful white paper, look at “Surgical Management of the Burn Wound and Use of Skin Substitutes.” This paper, from the 3,500-member American Burn Association, is interesting in its own right as a description of burns for the benefit of claims administrators at hospitals. In the course of the paper, the authors describe the different types of burn wounds, how they are classified and treated, and what additional treatments may be necessary for the burned patient.
Look closely, though, and the paper also provides the names of experts, specifically the authors; names of institutions specializing in burn treatment; and the contact information for the association spokesman. The names of products used to replace burned skin are mentioned. Surgical techniques unfamiliar to the layperson such as allografting are described. For a researcher looking into any aspect of the treatment of burn victims, this single paper would point to any number of promising additional sources and suggest different avenues for additional search. Mining the incidental data within white papers is the way professional researchers reduce the number of hours of online search and hit-or-miss emails to possible sources.
Mining the incidental data within white papers is the way professional researchers reduce the number of hours of online search and hit-or-miss emails to possible sources.
Statistics can paint a vivid picture in numbers. Whether you are a numbers nerd whose heart throbs at talk about means, modes, and medians or a grouch who thinks numbers are as likable as gout, finding statistics is part of every researcher’s task. Rather than wading through many pages in search of the percentage that will seal your argument, find statistics galore at an association. In studies, press releases, and daily updates, associations frequently make their case in the language of statistics. Keep an eye out for them.
Contact an association to find experts whose opinions hold weight. Even the smallest organizations can provide access to someone with a demonstrable mastery of a subject at best or a passing acquaintance with the topic at least. Larger associations generally have a PR person on staff who can field questions intelligently. The most media savvy will trot out an experienced talking head to dish up a tidy sound bite.
Referrals to Interview Subjects
Not all associations keep their experts locked up in the basement at headquarters. If the person on the receiving end of an email or a phone call can’t answer your question himself, pump him for the contact information of someone who can. Well-run organizations usually have boards of directors, which are populated by experts such as academics, business executives, subject matter pooh-bahs, or other brainy worthies who know the subject well and can be counted on to be in a mood to share their expertise with you. Always ask an association for contacts or references.
Pointers to Additional Information
So after you’ve exhausted an association and its staff and harvested every last factoid from the website, what’s your next move? Where can you wring even more information out of an association? Keep your eye on the association’s website for pages with titles such as “Resources,” “Links,” and “Library.” These gateways are your free ticket to bonus information in addition to what an association itself provides. In New Orleans, they call it lagniappe, a little something extra. Don’t be shy. Help yourself.
I’ll remind you about a handy Google utility that will serve up second helpings of information. Once you locate an association site you like, copy and paste the URL into the search box named for finding pages that link to a page on Google’s “Advanced Search” template. If a particular association’s webmasters don’t deliver the goods, let Google expand your search to similar organizations that might be able to help.
Don’t be nervous about asking an association what magazines or books you should be reading to learn about the subject. The larger, better-funded associations may even have an information center or library staffed with a real human being who can help you compile a bibliography. If so, you’ve hit upon an indispensable resource. Put the librarian’s email and phone number in a safe place.
How to Locate Associations
Obviously, before you can begin to mine the rich veins of information an association promises, you have to find the association first. The basic sources and techniques set out in this section will deliver association names and put contact information in your hands with minimal effort. TheEncyclopedia of Associations is always an excellent starting place, but don’t fret if you don’t have access to it. Because there are enough other online tools to do the job, access to the encyclopedia is no longer as essential as it once was.
Probably the easiest way to locate an association is to run a Google search using the following format:
association “your subject”
This Google search…
… should produce a link to…
National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America
association “chewing gum”
National Association of Chewing Gum Manufacturers; International Chewing Gum Association
American Tinnitus Association; British Tinnitus Association; Australian Tinnitus Association
Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association
American Hiking Society
If you don’t have success locating an association, try other common search synonyms such as “society,” “organization,” “club,” “order,” “federation,” or “conference.” Another good Google technique is to search for your subject and then restrict the search to the .org domain to locate noncommercial sites. You could start with the following search if you were interested in the rules of boating safety:
Feeling lazy and uninspired? It happens to the best of us, and when it does, we deal with it by clicking around search directories. Remember, directories are put together by people, not by computers the way search engines are. If you want to see all the links a topic in one place, without having to do a Google search, the hierarchical directory DMOZ (discussed in the previous chapter) is the answer.
ASAE and the Center for Association Leadership
The principle that people of similar interests will find one another and create an organization also holds true for the people who themselves operate and manage associations. The ASAE and the Center for Association Leadership is an umbrella organization made up of the American Society of Association Executives, the ASAE Foundation, the Center for Association Leadership, and the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives. Find the “Gateway to Associations,” a database of more than 6,000 member organizations, by searching for “gateway” on ASAE’s website.
As we’ve seen, associations are extraordinarily generous with their information. Whether you’re picking the brain of a spokesperson over the phone or cruising around a website scooping up handfuls of free facts, useful materials are there for the taking. While associations, as a rule, are generous with their information, some do have limits and save their most valuable information collections for members. If you really need access to members-only information that the association provides, join it! Members often get access to a list of other members, private blogs, members-only reports, news updates, and subscriptions, and proprietary databases. Of course, not all associations are open to everyone—membership may be restricted to members of a profession, to people working within an industry, or to those who can produce credentials. There are plenty of associations to choose from. Do some diligent digging to find one that will accept you at a price that’s right.
Associations are extraordinarily generous with their information.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ASSOCIATIONS
For years, librarians have consulted the Encyclopedia of Associations to help answer questions when their own workplace collection couldn’t. Now in its forty-eighth edition, which attests to its staying power as a standard reference, the venerable encyclopedia continues to provide “detailed information concerning more than 25,000 nonprofit American membership organizations of national scope.” Organization profiles feature the mailing address, website, contact person, date of founding, number of members, annual membership dues, and a brief description. If the organization publishes newsletters, books, or reports, the encyclopedia notes that as well. To make searches simple, all associations are grouped according to broad subject areas. For more information, contact the publisher:
27400 Drake Rd
Farmington Hills, MI 48331-3535
(Yes, you should write them a letter on a piece of paper.) You also should check with your library to see if they have a print copy at the reference desk or a license to the electronic version.
Ten Interesting Associations
As a way to drive home the point that associations exist for even the most eclectic subjects, let’s play Association Roulette. The rule (there’s only one) is to find arcane associations, by thumbing through the Encyclopedia of Associations at random, running random searches through the associations directory from the ASAE and the Center for Association Leadership “Gateway to Associations,” or by Googling any noun that springs to mind in the same search as the word association. Humanity is nothing if not diverse in its passions.
American Institute of Organbuilders: For professional builders of pipe organs.
Xerces Society: Its members work for the preservation of invertebrates; named for an extinct species of butterfly.
American Glovebox Society: This group of professionals works with gloveboxes needed in industries in which people work with scary substances such as viruses, radioactive materials, and other stuff that cannot be let loose in the neighborhood.
American Textbook Council: Their chapters take their chapters seriously.
Governors Highway Safety Association: Right turn on a red light? Someone has to decide if it’s a good idea.
North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association: Formerly the North American Bramble Growers Research Association. Update your address book.
American School Food Service Association: A group for the lunch ladies, not the ladies who lunch.
Miss Rodeo America Alumni Association: Cowgirls forever.
Long John Silver’s Franchisee Association: Servers of fish-and-chips worldwide can dish on the haddock.
International Association for Near-Death Studies: Tracking the experience of anyone who saw the light but said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
TRY THIS AT HOME
To see the power of associations in action, look at how skilled reports weave comments from a variety of associations into their stories. Skim through the top five stories from today’s New York Times and see how long it takes before you see a quote attributed to a spokesperson for a particular group. Chances are the quote will appear within the first few paragraphs of the story. Reporters understand the importance of backing up stories with attributable quotes, and associations are usually the best place to find qualified spokespeople.
SITES AND SOURCES MENTIONED IN THIS CHAPTER
American Glovebox Society
American Institute of Organbuilders
American School Food Service Association
American Textbook Council
ASAE and the Center for Association Leadership
ASAE and the Center for Association Leadership’s Gateway to Associations Search
Association of Apparel and Textile Exporters in Bulgaria
Corn Refiners Association
Governors Highway Safety Association
Hong Kong Sex Education Association
Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association
International Association for Near Death Studies
Long John Silver’s Franchisee Association
New York Times
North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association