date: January 3, 2013
I am not a historian, and over the last couple years I've learned that doing historical research is hard work. About 2 1/2 years ago I started spending some time at the Archives of the University of Missouri in order to do some research on a former University Librarian. Even though this has been a side project, my goal was to do the kind of research that would one day result in a meaningful document and that was also a good read (I also just wanted to learn something about this person, the time period, and the setting). My problem was that I didn't have a very good research question in mind. What I had in mind was simply the knowledge that this person I was interested in did something important in the past, but knowing that is not enough to form a really good question, and without a really good question, there's no chance of forming a really good narrative. Based on the material I found, I could certainly have put together, in the form of some kind of narrative, a simple account. That would only have been interesting, however, in the sense that a piece of trivia is interesting. If that was my goal, I could save potential readers' time and just condensed the historical events to a bullet list.
I wanted to write this paper so badly that I took a library history doctoral seminar, I read a number of books on historical methodology, I got involved with a library history special interests group that is part of one of my field's associations, and of course, I read a lot about the broader topic of interest. This helped me, abstractly at least, see the work cut out with my project, but I still couldn't see the whole picture. I didn't know what I wanted to say with this piece. I didn't know, in the grand, non-trivial scheme of things, why it was important. I had learned quite a bit, and what I had learned aided my understanding of other areas of librarianship as well as my teaching (because it helped me make connections for my students), but I still lacked a specific research question, or problem, for this specific paper. Without that I couldn't close the deal.
Then one day, quite recently, something happened. I was offered a bit of constructive criticism about my work (that has nothing to do with the history project). It was a wonderfully informative critique, not because I felt it was true in any objective sense, but because I felt it was true based on how I was conveying my work in addition to how others conceive of our field of study in general. As I reflected on the critique, and for myself at least, formed a counterargument, I realized something about my overall ideas about my field. That reflection triggered an eureka moment and I immediately knew how to frame the history project.
So I've taken a very brief break from my dissertation (which is coming along ahead of schedule) and have spent part of the last couple days at the archives. I've gone through the same archived documents and am seeing things and making connections that I didn't see or make the last time. I'm going back to the archives on Monday to tie up a few loose ends, but I've been able to redraft what I had written and I think it's turning out to be a pretty decent piece.
By the way, one of the first books I read on historical methodology is a book I came across accidentally. I was at a conference in Montreal and the book was on display at a publisher's tables. The book is about teaching and studying historical methodology (and not just the methodology itself), and it was a great introduction for me:
Lévesque, S. (2008). Thinking historically: Educating students for the twenty-first century. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
I'll just add that doing historical work on a topic in librarianship, at the archives, has been quite an educational experience. I was able to get my hands on annual reports, correspondence, notes, old photos, newsletters, and the like. The material is revealing. I'm looking forward to integrating this kind of work in some future courses I hope to teach. There has been another surprising benefit to doing this study. I got a behind the scenes look at some of the motivations for some of the journal articles this person published. It is illustrative to make those connections and catch a glimpse of some of that background knowledge.