The best source is the one that fits your argument.

20 10 2010

There is an article in this month’s AHA Perspectives which got me thinking about the research process yet again. Here’s David Ransel from Indiana:

The Australian anthropologist-historian Greg Dening observed that the perceived value of a source increases in proportion to the difficulty of gaining access to it. He demonstrated this effect in a delightful story of his search for the letters of William Gooch, a young Englishman who had traveled in 1792 to the South Pacific as an astronomer on a supply ship and met a violent end at the hands of Hawaiian natives. Dening traveled to England and had to overcome a number of obstacles before obtaining permission to read the letters—and, accordingly, attached great importance to their contents. The story has a powerful resonance for those of us who work in far-off lands where library and archive access is even more difficult than in the United Kingdom. We are indeed apt to attach excessive importance to materials for which permission to read or copy requires lengthy battles with bureaucrats and archivists. By the same logic, we can easily undervalue sources that fall into our laps. I once acquired—in a casual trade with an illegal book trader in the Soviet Union—an 18th-century Russian letter-writer’s guide. It struck me as a quaint souvenir and possible reference for official titles and forms of address. It was only when I showed it to a senior colleague and heard him exclaim that the book contained a capsule social history that I realized how useful it could be in reinforcing the arguments of my first monograph on the importance of patronage and personal clienteles in Russian politics. This book of model letters constituted a primer in how to initiate, reestablish, nourish, or end a patron or client relationship. I soon produced a couple of articles based on the letter-writer.

Despite the fact that I’m an American historian and I don’t (usually) go off to far-off lands to find my sources, I do identify with the point. I remember way back in ancient history (before Google Books) when I would play stump the librarian with the government documents guy at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin or keep going back to the Library of Congress with two pages of requests because I wanted to track down a particular obscure source in order to make my point.

However, it’s not often like that for me anymore. I still go to archives. [In fact, I’ve been trying to arrange an upcoming archives trip most of today.] With respect to published sources though, almost everything I’d ever want seems to be available online. While I might have said that doesn’t fly for stuff published after 1923, the more I explore HathiTrust, the more good stuff I find published after 1923 in full view format. [How is that possible anyway? Anybody out there understand copyright law?]

After spending ten years or so in various libraries looking at refrigerating equipment manuals, I found one on Hathitrust published in 1933 on Monday that I had never seen before. This made me very happy. It’s going to get cited in the book manuscript in five or six places. I didn’t have to travel outside my office to find it.

So while having to scour the ends of the earth to find something certainly makes that something appear important, and (as Ransel suggests) reading easy to reach sources in new ways can also be very interesting, I think what really matters is whether any source helps you make your point effectively. And thanks to technology, that’s easier to do than ever.


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