Today was a good day. I spent about five hours in an archives doing some research to fill in some gaps for my book. I will have to come back again, but that is fine by me. I love doing research. Research is addictive. There is always another box to open, another file to skim, and definitely another document to photocopy (if one is so lucky). Today, I found myself getting lured into folders and boxes that would be interesting to examine, but not pertinent to my current research goals. I kept thinking, “I can use this. I can go back to that one section and clarify, beef it up, make my argument more compelling.” Ahh… this is a trap. One must steel oneself against such temptations. I must keep time-on-task!*
I am doing my best to flesh out my last chapter. The time period of this chapter is the 1980s to 2008. It is shockingly current and makes my historian soul shudder. This cannot be right? Can it? I remember the 1980s… The other troublesome thing is that there is just so much documentation. Who would think a historian would complain about having too many sources? It is true. Because the ravages of time have not beset the documentation from this section of my study, and because the records have been preserved by people more mindful of keep their history, there is a lot of stuff to wade through: some good, some bad, and the worst yet, some whose usefulness is far from clear. Maybe it will be helpful, someday. Should I photocopy? Should I take notes? Quite the dilemma that does not get the job done.
And this leads me to an important tip to all novice researchers. Keeping a notebook, journal, or Word document for all you kids out there with your texting and all that jazz of what you have examined and what you hope to study as you go through your research is a nice tool, one I did not learn soon enough. Another helpful thing for me is to fully document at least once in your notes the citation of your sources. That’s right, put footnotes in your notes. Another good one is write on the back of your photocopies (or in pencil if you have double sided them) the reference. Nothing is more maddening than going back to cite this fabulous primary document and you haven’t the foggiest idea where you got it. It will save you an embarrassing correspondence to the archivist or librarian begging for their assistance. Not that I have ever had to do that. Of course not.
Everyone has to develop their own research style. I have developed mine over low these twenty years (has it been that long?) since I started graduate work. (I knew squat during undergrad. I shudder at my stupidity.) And you will think you have found the best way to do it and something will come along that will make it all the more easy. (Where would I be without my laptop? Still handwriting my notes on legal pads, that’s where!)
There is nothing like a good day in the archives to get one excited and enthusiastic for the craft of history. I have a short stack of new photocopies and some notes. I will be back to do more next week, but for now, I am content.
*At one point in my life, I studied education theory. Hands down, one of the best phrases I ever learned was “time-on-task.” It is no “self-fulfilling prophecy,” but what is? It is nearly as good as the one I picked up in grad school: “that works on many levels.” Priceless.