The right way to use research databases.

16 07 2010

This essay by Keith Thomas in the London Review of Books (via the Guardian) is absolutely the best description of someone’s research method that I have ever read. Go read the whole thing and come back here.

Seriously, go click that link. If you don’t, you’ll be sorry. The rest of this post can wait.

It’s not that I agree with the way Thomas does his thing, it’s his remarkable self-awareness of his method along with the beauty of the prose that really strikes me. Take this, bit for example:

[It won't hurt you to read this again. This is that good.]

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

This procedure is a great deal less meticulous than it sounds. Filing is a tedious activity and bundles of unsorted notes accumulate. Some of them get loose and blow around the house, turning up months later under a carpet or a cushion. A few of my most valued envelopes have disappeared altogether. I strongly suspect that they fell into the large basket at the side of my desk full of the waste paper with which they are only too easily confused. My handwriting is increasingly illegible and I am sometimes unable to identify the source on which I have drawn. Would that I had paid more heed to the salutary advice offered in another long forgotten manual for students, History and Historical Research (1928) by C.G. Crump of the Public Record Office: ‘Never make a note for future use in such a form … that even you yourself will not know what it means, when you come across it some months later.’

My notes are voluminous because my interests have never been very narrowly focused. My subject is what I think of as the historical ethnography of early modern England. Equipped with questions posed by anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers, as well as by other historians, I try to look at virtually all aspects of early modern life, from the physical environment to the values and mental outlook of people at all social levels. Unfortunately, such diverse topics as literacy, numeracy, gestures, jokes, sexual morality, personal cleanliness or the treatment of animals, though central to my concerns, are hard to pursue systematically. They can’t be investigated in a single archive or repository of information. Progress depends on building up a picture from a mass of casual and unpredictable references accumulated over a long period. That makes them unsuitable subjects for a doctoral thesis, which has to be completed in a few years. But they are just the thing for a lifetime’s reading. So when I read, I am looking out for material relating to several hundred different topics. Even so, I find that, as my interests change, I have to go back to sources I read long ago, with my new preoccupations in mind.

Now that’s thorough! And speaking of self-awareness, Thomas recognizes how old-fashioned this sounds:

The truth is that I have become something of a dinosaur. Nowadays, researchers don’t need to read early printed books laboriously from cover to cover. They have only to type a chosen word into the appropriate database to discover all the references to the topic they are pursuing. I try to console myself with the reflection that they will be less sensitive to the context of what they find and that they will certainly not make the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity. But the sad truth is that much of what it has taken me a lifetime to build up by painful accumulation can now be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning. Moreover, today’s historians don’t make notes on pieces of paper. They have computer programs for filing and indexing. Even as I write, an email message informs me that ‘wiki software can be used to develop a personal research knowledge base.’ My methods are in no way an advance on those of Burckhardt and now appear impossibly archaic. But it is far too late to think of transferring this accumulation onto some electronic database. When I look at my cellar, stuffed with cardboard boxes and dog-eared folders, and littered with loose slips which have broken free from overstuffed envelopes, I envy my colleagues who travel light, with their laptops and digital cameras. But, as Gibbon said, where error is irreparable, repentance is useless.

As I explained in my Lovesong to Zotero, this attitude is still quite common in people who are probably much younger than Thomas is. I say it’s their loss. Database programs like Zotero are fantastic, particularly for people who don’t file well, because they can help you find stuff in your notes that you might not remember. You can write books much, much faster if you have better intellectual control of your own work. And best of all, there is no sacrifice to the quality of your research. It’s simply that you can simply sort through it faster. Much, much faster.

More importantly, I agree with Thomas that something is lost in using databases the way most people (and certainly most undergraduates do). However, it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve been working on the same ice and refrigeration project for ten years now (in fairness, I did write another book in the interim). I started in the pre-Google Books era and have taken the project into the era of having seemingly everything in my fingertips.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this (as I’m finishing the first draft before schools starts) and I now believe that had I started this project in say – 2007 – I’d be totally lost. The reason I like all these databases is that I started by immersing myself in the primary sources, mostly trade journals (since so few secondary sources are available on my topic) and expanded outward only when I felt I had a pretty good idea of what the outline of the book would be.

Thanks to that earlier research, I can clearly see the forest through the trees. What I mean by this is had I began my research punching terms into Google Books and other sites like it, I would have had way too much information. Do you know how many hits you get on Chronicling America, for example, if you just type in “ice?” But now, I know how to limit the dates and, more importantly, what qualifying terms to through in so that I can get exactly what I want. I would never get the kind of details I want for my manuscript in the pre-database era because newspapers and pre-1923 books were totally inaccessible to me, especially living as I do in Pueblo, Colorado.

So what’s the right way to use research databases? I think it’s to start with primary sources (especially archives) and then move onto the new technology from there.

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2 responses

17 07 2010
Katrina

For my own research, I have had a similar experience to yours; having read earlier (primary and secondary) sources, I can then turn to electronic indices knowing what I’m looking for. Much of my research has involved microfilms of newspapers; knowing to look for a particular date of an incident obviously speeds things up immensely! But looking at those newspaper pages, seeing what else was being reported at the same time, offers an understanding of the cultural milieu in a way that simply downloading a single article from a digital archive does not (although yes, full pages are available from some newspaper archives).
But the tactile experience of leafing through old magazines seems to allow for the discovery of unexpected connexions, in a way that granular electronic data mining does not.

20 07 2010
McZones

Wow! Excellent guidelinse!

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