Leah Klocek and I connected a few months ago on the interesting and essential topic of historical research. Leah has been a professional researcher for two years. In that time, she’s done genealogical research, served as a researcher for a non-profit, and dug up primary source documents on various historical topics. Leah also fancies herself something of a writer and runs the website and small business Crossroads Historical Research.
This is the first of a two-part article on historical research. Over to you, Leah!!
We all know it’s tough to keep your head above water when you’re immersed in a historical research-based writing project. After all, history is long, and it’s only getting longer. Here are a few strategies that have kept me afloat time and time again.
Expand your notion of primary sources
The early days of working on my thesis (on the topic of anti-Western propaganda campaigns in Japan during the interwar years) were an exercise in frustration and futility. At that point, I had the idea firmly in my head that primary sources were documents, full stop, and if I was to put together a good, solid thesis, I would have to translate ever-so-slightly archaic Japanese until hara-kiri would seem like the best solution to all of my problems. I didn’t understand that I needed to adjust my thinking on how to do my research until the day that I spent an entire hour translating one sentence. It was a particularly long and difficult sentence, with lots of little bits and bobs that, in true Japanese style, had no direct translation or meaning outside of the larger context. The instant I finished translating the sentence, I found that it was completely useless to me.
At that moment, I realized that I had two options: I could either drop out of graduate school, move into Mom and Dad’s basement, and turn into a hermit, or I could figure out a way to find primary sources that wouldn’t require hour upon hour of translation in order to understand and analyze them. With that realization, a whole new world of sources suddenly opened up to me: political cartoons, the visual arts, photographs, advertisements, propaganda posters, even textiles and architecture were now fair game, and I used them all with great success.
Some researchers, even experienced researchers, get trapped in the mindset that only allows for the sort of investigation that takes place in an old library, reverently turning old pages and deciphering faded handwriting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very romantic notion, and there is certainly a time and place for such research. As researchers and authors, however, a surprisingly large part of our work requires a mind open to the possibilities of alternative and diverse sources. Such sources not only give us a much more complete picture of the time and place, they can supply us with the very information we need when more traditional works have run dry.
Trust nothing implicitly
At this point, you may be thinking, “Well, obviously,” but hang on a second. I’m not talking about Wikipedia, or the blog at Nutjobwithapoliticalagenda.com (Not an actual website, thank goodness), or even textbooks designed to support a certain view of history; I’m talking about primary sources. Will a propaganda poster tell you the truth of a situation? Will an official state document? How about a photograph? If your answers to these questions weren’t all some form of “no” or “not necessarily,” keep reading.
Did you take AP history classes in high school? If so, prepare for a flashback when I say this: APPARTS.
APPARTS is an acronym used to help students critically analyze primary and secondary source documents. It breaks down into the following categories and questions, each of which you should be able to answer before you can decide how trustworthy a source is and whether you can, with any integrity, use the information it gives you:
Author: Who created the source? What was his/her background? Did s/he have a vested interest in pushing a specific point of view?
Place and Time: In what time and place was this source produced? What about this time and place may have affected the meaning of the source?
Prior Knowledge: What additional information do you already know that might be relevant in analyzing this source?
Audience: For whom was this source produced? How does the intended audience alter the reliability of the source?
Reason: Why was this source produced at this time and place? What is its purpose?
The Main Idea: What is the central message of this source?
Significance: What makes this source important? What inferences can you make from this document?
This may seem like an unreasonably long and involved process, especially if you’re researching information on something that seems completely apolitical, like the weather on a given week in 1536, or the practices of Egyptian embalmers. However, the first rule of historical research and analysis (at least in my book) is that people lie all the time. My great-grandfather, for example, had no conceivable reason to lie about his birth year throughout his life, giving multiple choice answers to the very simplest question one can ask, and yet, here I am, with various official documents all staring me in the face, only able to honestly say, “Well, he was born in between 1886 and 1890… Probably.”
Never assume that any source, whether it is a 2,500 year-old philosophical manifesto, a 25-year-old newspaper article, or your grandmother, is giving you objective truth.
Many thanks, Leah. Part 2 is coming up on Friday.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.