One critical realization that's helped me write this series is that "literature search" is not the same as "research." It is the part of the research process that most people focus on, though, and it is certainly important.
The Internet is chock full of interesting information. Some of it is well-done research or even primary sources. Some of it is baloney.
There are scans of illuminated manuscripts, translations and transcriptions of historical documents, pictures of museum pieces and more out there. Georgetown's Labyrinth, ORB, the Internet Medieval Sourcebook and more such clearinghouses contain links to much of this material. Project Gutenberg contains some relevant texts.
Most major research libraries, and many local libraries, have put their catalogs online. You can do searches from home, compile lists of books, and then spend your time at the physical library actually reading and note-taking. The inventories of major booksellers can also serve as a sort of card catalog.
Other People's Research
Many good researchers, SCAdian and otherwise, put their results on the Web. University professors may put their course notes online. All of these things can be useful.
Other people's research is good for a cursory survey of a topic, to get an introduction to it. It's your class session with a teacher. But if you are serious about doing deep research on something, you will need to go beyond this and read the sources that these other people used. Almost all research requires some interpretation of the sources, and you may find that your interpretation differs from the ones presented in other people's research.
So, to get started in Anglo-Saxon poetry, I used other people's websites to learn about the poetic forms. The entirety of my textile research is just having read research websites. But because I'm more serious about the Anglo-Saxon poetry, I'm moving on to read the "big names," the important authors in the field who are responsible for our current understanding of it.
There is a lot of nonsense on the Web, too. And it is often repeated in many places, because it is so easy for people to cut and paste the nonsense onto their own websites.
You want to avoid unsupported assertions. Anyone who tells you, "This is how it was in the Middle Ages" and doesn't provide a citation to a source (preferably a primary one, like a historical text or artifact, or at least to a well-respected book) could be interrogating their past lives for all you know. Take for example the hoary old inbox forward Life in the 1500s. It uses things "everyone" knows, spins some barely plausible hooey around them, and tries to pass them off as facts. Also notice how in debunking these myths, Barbara Mickkelson provides citations to the sources that she used to investigate the assorted claims. That way, you can read the same things she did and decide if you agree with her interpretations, or if you even think her sources are worthwhile.
Your local branch of the county library may well be lacking in the scholarly research materials you will be hunting after. However, it does have trained librarians and the use of Inter-Library Loan.
Librarians are trained to help people do research in libraries. That is their job, and most of them are eager to do it, rather than answer the same three questions (What are your hours? How do I get there? Where is the bathroom?) over and over again. They will be even more excited to realize that you, too, are a researcher and not a student trying to get the librarian to do the student's homework for him or her. You will probably have to pry the librarian away from her or his catalogs and indices when you have enough material, thank you so much.
Inter-Library Loan is a wondrous, wondrous thing. You need to provide a citation of the material you want, whether it is a book or a single article in a journal. The more complete the citation, the better. Then the ILL staff find a library that has the information, and a copy is forwarded to your library for you. In the case of a book, you will have to return it. But journal articles are often photocopied and are yours to keep.
Whether they are part of a university or stand-alone institutions, research libraries are Big. Whereas your local library focuses on everyday-joe books - bestsellers, how-to guides, cookbooks, children's literature - the research library caters to the egghead crowd. Here is where you will find fascimiles of manuscripts (photographs or other copies of an original), PhD dissertations on obscure topics in history and literature, and an absolutely huge database of journals covering everything from "Abacus Use in Byzantium" to "The Zephyr as Poetic Convention in Petrachian Sonnets."
These libraries very often have their book catalogs online; their periodical databases may or may not be available remotely. Unless you live in a college town, you may want to do your searching at home, writing down all the reference information you need to locate resources upon your arrival.
Identifying the Right Resources
Most catalogs, electronic or otherwise, are searchable by keywords. You may have to try several, in different combinations, before hitting upon the right ones.
If your first search does not turn anything up, try being more general. There may not be much on "10th century English pottery London," and too much on "pottery." So try "10th century pottery," "10th century London," "medieval English pottery," and other similar combinations of your search terms, or related words.
Examine the catalog entries that you do find. Note what categories they belong to and what keywords are listed. If they seem relevant, do a search for those keywords or topics.
Another trick, once you are in the stacks (the shelves of books), is to look around on the shelves near where you've found one book. Since books are usually grouped by topic, other useful books may be nearby.
The first thing you should do, unless you really are lucky enough to find "A survey of pottery found in 10th century London," is flip to the index of a book. If you have a book on medieval pottery, look to see if there are any pages given for "England," "Great Britian," or "London." If the book only covers German and French pottery, you can put it back.
The simplest way is to take your list to the Research Desk (or Circulation, if you can't find a Research Desk) and ask someone to help you. They will be very very happy to do so, and will probably find three more ways to find additional information. They may also be aware of other cultural or historical resources in the nearby area - local museums or other libraries which specialize in your topic.
Books will be filed according to either the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal system. Usually, there will be a map of the library showing where the different categories of books are located.
Periodicals can be tricky, so it is good to ask the Reference Desk. Some libraries alphabetize them; others use a sorting system. Many issues from the mid-1990s and later may be available electronically. You can ask for help using the library's database system, and for help in printing out copies (if you want to).
Very old material (usually periodicals or dissertations) may be stored on microfilm. Very retro these days! A librarian will certainly have to get the films for you, and she will show you how to use the reader.
Some libraries have special collections. Find out ahead of time what credentials you need to see them. Some are available for the asking; others (like the Folger Shakespeare Library) may have more stringent requirements. Ask the curators how you might gain admission, and consider calling upon the scholars (SCAdian and mundane) that you've contacted already. All you might need is a note from a friendly professor indicating that you are doing independent research which the professor is supporting.
In very large institutions, there may be more than one library! Make sure you check before you go that all your sources are in the same physical building, and that you are going to the correct building. Or, just be prepared to go to (say) the main liberal arts library and also to the performing arts library.
Research libraries also participate in ILL. Ask at (guess where?) the Reference Desk and someone will give you the forms to fill out.
This isn't a source I've used personally, so I can't offer detailed advice on what you can and can't get away with there. Certainly, you can go and look at the exhibits. Check with the Information Desk before taking any pictures. It also doesn't hurt to ask the volunteers what services are offered to independent researchers. ("Independent" sounds better than "amateur," don't you think?) If the Information Desk isn't forthcoming, find a docent (a trained volunteer guide) and ask again. Explain that you are very interested in Exhibit X, and you have some questions about it, and you'd like to speak with a curator or someone else if that's possible.
If you live near a museum that specializes in a field which you find interesting, you might consider volunteering there yourself. Establishing yourself as an insider might help in getting access to artifacts that interest you.