on wading

26Mar09

I have two related thoughts about dissertation stuff, now that I’m working on another chapter. For this chapter, research and writing are happening at the same time, which is a bit of a new thing.

Thought 1: Research. Unlike last summer, I’m approaching my archival work with much more of a grab and go mentality. I’ve finally converted to using my digital camera as the main way that I gather materials wherever I can.The camera has really transformed my research and the way I feel about it. The horrible truth is that I really dislike time in the archives, especially in the archive where I spend the most time. Back when I was typing, I always had a sense of panic because I could never type as fast as I thought I needed to to make steady progress. I type very quickly but it could take me two or three days to type pamphlets; several weeks to go through just one volume of correspondence out of potentially hundreds. Archival work was never enjoyable because I was always worried I wasn’t moving fast enough. Adding to the problem, the strange angles I put myself in to make transcription easy plus the straining I do to decipher handwriting and the dust from the volumes all combined to give me a pounding headache, pretty much every time.

Taking photographs of my sources has benefits beyond speeding up the work and easing the headaches. I read a lot of handwritten texts and having photographs that I can constantly refer to means that I’m not dependent on faulty transcriptions. I’ve found that one of the keys to reading handwriting is to keep rereading the script in question. If I were transcribing, I’d be much more tempted to skip over whole chunks of text I couldn’t read, again with the time constraints ever present on my mind. I’m relieved that my project isn’t hanging on notes I took when I was hungry, tired, thirsty, and suffering from a splitting headache.

But I do worry about what the digital camera means for historical research on the whole. The camera allows researchers to grab so much more information than possible before. My camera is pretty cheap and it takes a few seconds to focus before each shot but still, on an average day of research (which, for me, is between three and four hours, including a sizeable lunch break), I can take up to 500 or even more shots. (Obviously that’s only if I’m taking pictures of a volume from cover to cover. I take fewer shots when I’m actually going through a volume, even fewer if there’s no index.) Depending on how much material I need in any one volume, I can get through up to two or three volumes in a day. Even the biggest volumes out of which I need pretty much everything can be done in two or three days. It’s a big improvement compared to weeks and months to type the same material.

But here’s my concern: are we really supposed to gather so much information? It’s not as though I’m spending any less time on research trips. My research trips will still total 14-15 months.  The deeper I get into my project, the more I realize it could not be done without the digital camera. It requires too much information; each of my case studies could be the subject of a dissertation. So I wonder how the nature of historical research and writing is going to change now that it’s possible to gather so much more information. Is the standard of “how much information you need to gather” going to change? Are funding organizations going to become more reluctant to fund longer trips because they presume that research can be done quicker, despite the fact that there are still tons and tons of archives that don’t allow digital cameras or, in some cases, laptops? And does the fact that research can be done quicker mean that it should be? And what are the consequences of having that much material at your fingertips?

I, for one, feel overwhelmed by the amount of material I’ve gathered and by how small a portion of my dissertation it represents. For example, I’m working on a chapter now where the event in question isn’t resolved for several years. At several random points within this time period, there are unbelievably long but relevant reports and transcripts in the official record alone. Just this week I discovered the existence of five additional volumes of evidence, each probably 100-200 folios long. In total, not including newspaper sources, which I’ve decided to put aside for the moment, I’ll be dealing with thousands of pages for this one chapter alone. How exactly do I wade through this material with any efficiency? And is it possible to read that much information and write a chapter that comes in at under 40 pages?

Stay tuned for a post on my second dissertation-related thought.

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3 Responses to “on wading”

  1. I totally get where you’re coming from. In the chapter that I just drafted, I’m using a lot of correspondence that was published as part of _Official Records of the War of the Rebellion_, which includes many, MANY volumes of correspondence on the American Civil War. I have so many printouts that all look exactly the same, that I feel like I spend most of my time searching for the right primary source. I feel like those sources–combined with other, handwritten sources–have made it difficult for me to focus myself.

    Good luck with it. My thoughts are with you!

  2. I’ve also spent time thinking about this. In my case, it may be less problematic: I probably don’t have nearly the voluminous sources. Well, I *am* working with US government documents, which can go on for pages – but I don’t have volumes upon volumes for just one chapter. 🙂

    I spent my first 3 archival trips (a total of 10 days at about 5 different institutions, so some of those were one-day visits) with *just* my laptop and focused on photocopies and transcriptions. But I couldn’t have accomplished so much last summer without my camera. I’m still getting down and dirty with some of last summer’s files, but I still think the camera was the best option.

    I like that I can capture so much. Sure, I’ve found places that only let you photograph 20% of a collection (which SUCKS), but it really saves time and money in the long run for me. I’m okay with the having a billion files.

    And I can only imagine what it was all like before people could even transcribe with their laptops – can you imagine how much time you’d spend in the archives transcribing by hand???

  3. 3 thefrogprincess

    @tanya: I can’t imagine hand transcriptions; when I first went to the archives to research my senior thesis, I had no idea how much information archives held, so I just waltzed in without my laptop and thought there wouldn’t be that much information. It was unbearable and I just didn’t get that much done at all. But historians should all keep in mind that there’s still immense variety in archive policies. I know people who go to some archives that don’t allow computers. They’re truly dedicated b/c I know I’d have to rethink topics.

    @The History Enthusiast: Finding the material you need when you’ve gathered so much is another one of the things I’m thinking about. All this data does lead to a lack of focus on my part because I tend to get panicked and overwhelmed. Luckily for me, I’m usually able to channel my panic into work even if it takes a day or two.


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