Friday, June 28, 2013

Write as you go, mostly

In my previous (journalistic) life, research was part of the job but footnotes were actually forbidden. I got into a kind of "factory system" for visiting libraries, in which I managed my time by planning carefully ahead, so that I more or less automated the process of looking up books and articles and photocopying the good parts, returning home (usually a one- or two-hour journey) to actually read and reflect on them.

"Rip and run" may not have been the best strategy even then. Now that I work in an environment where footnotes are mandatory and where it really helps to think on your feet while in a repository, it definitely is a bad habit to have.

"Write (and think) as you go" is usually a better form of time management (because what you write can often go directly into the research report or article) and a better form of resource management. And stopping to read and ponder each source and its potential evidence enables mid-course corrections that can save trouble later.

But real life does impinge on this. Many repositories are far away and we can't visit them as needed. There is a tradeoff involved. My friend and colleague Patti Hobbs, currently a genealogy librarian in Missouri, wrote recently on the Transitional Genealogists Forum that she would plead guilty to having committed "pinball genealogy":

"But it was either do it that way or not at all. I didn't feel that I could constantly test the patience of my family by doing more than collecting the documents when at the courthouses. People say that you will invariably have to go back to follow new leads, but I find that the case anyway." There's no question which is the best habit to have, but circumstances alter cases.

Very few repositories, even in small towns, can match the hospitable green expanse of Spiegel Grove (pictured above) in Fremont, Ohio, where the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center (and northwest Ohio obituary central) is located. And even there our non-genealogical traveling companions of all species do have their limits. As Patti says, "Do the best you can, but don't wallow in guilt if you can't do it perfectly.'" Or as I seem to say in more and more contexts: Something is better than nothing.

Harold Henderson, "Write as you go, mostly," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 28 June 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.] 


Debbie Parker Wayne, CG, CGL(sm) said...

Great advice from all. When I have unlimited time I try to follow the advice of Elizabeth Shown Mills and analyze the records carefully while I am in the repository. But I admit to "copy and run" when time is starting to run out. I'd rather have copies of more documents to analyze when I get home than only a few carefully analyzed documents I was able to get through on site. I can usually plan another trip to the facility after I see what is in the documents I grabbed before I ran. And I may be able to work more efficiently on my next trip to the repository. And if the repository is a hot, cramped, dusty courthouse I definitely can think more clearly once I am home in a cool, comfortable environment.

Kerry Scott said...

It's extremely difficult for me to leave the house and do research all by myself because I'm the stay-at-home parent here. As a result, every research trip I've taken in the past eight years has been a frantic dash with an Excel spreadsheet of records to pull, and not a moment to actually look at the records until I get home (and often many months after that).

I can definitely attest to the fact that this approach is suboptimal. I try not to be frustrated, because I know my descendants will grow up in a blink, and I'll have more than enough time to actually read a whole record in one sitting. But yeah...suboptimal. For sure.