When I was in Philadelphia recently to present a paper at the McNeil Center, I also enjoyed the opportunity to meet undergraduate students who were working on research papers as part of the MCEAS Undergraduate Research Workshop. I was asked to talk about my research methods—how I go about finding sources, how I organize them, and how I pull them together into (sometimes) coherent prose. In doing so, I outed myself as a very old-fashioned researcher, indeed.
I do not take pictures or scans of documents. I transcribe quotes on my laptop as I research. And readers, I have a confession: I am a huge proponent of old-fashioned index cards.
I know, I know. I’m a bit behind the times. Fellow Juntoist Ben Park has written eloquently about why he uses Evernote and how he organizes his data. He even includes a “fun anecdote” about an instructor who taught “us how to keep notes on notecards.” Tongue-in-cheek, he wonders, “Does anyone do that anymore?”
Guilty. I don’t take pictures of documents because I know that I’m the type of procrastinator who will never sit down and read the things she’s scanned. It’s more useful for me to see what material a manuscript holds while I’m in the archive, and to jot it down there. Given the fact that I was looking for mentions of Native and slave foodways in Revolutionary America, it made more sense for me to skim quickly until I found something rather than to take photos and hope to find mentions of food afterward. I suppose my methods might change in the future if I don’t pick another needle-in-a-haystack sort of topic.
Because I ended up with so much material—and so much of it disorganized—I needed a way to work through the digital mountains of words on my computer. As an undergrad, I could print out my fifteen or so pages of primary source quotes to write a 10-to-12-page research paper. That method wasn’t going to work for the dissertation. I ended up using index cards, and it worked for me.
The research started (albeit superficially) with my comprehensive exams. As I read the books on my list, I transcribed the passages I found where historians referenced food, cooking, or eating. I then looked up the archive they cited in their footnote, along with the manuscript collection (if I’d been even smarter, I would have included a short parenthetical remark stating why I was choosing to look at a particular collection, but I didn’t). By the time I was ready to set out on research I had a whole list of collections to examine.
Once I got to an archive, I created a new Word document for each collection I looked at. As I read, I transcribed the quotes I thought would be useful for me, making sure to note in bold when a volume changed over to the next volume. As I transcribed, if I came across a quote that immediately gave me something to say, I’d make a note to myself using all caps so that I could spot it easily when skimming a document. I should say that sometimes these notes were useful, and sometimes they were completely useless; at various points during the write-up stage I found myself vehemently crossing out my capitalized notes.
When the time came to write up a new chapter, I’d open up a new Word document and call it something like “Primary Sources, black Loyalists in Sierra Leone chapter.” Then, I’d go through my folders and open each document that seemed like it would contain a relevant collection. I’d copy and paste each document into the new Word document, alphabetizing by collection name. Once I was done adding in every potential collection, I formatted the document to 4 by 6 inches, shrunk the font (to save paper), and added page numbers. Then, I bought extra print cartridges, resigned myself to killing some trees, and printed everything out on index cards (each chapter usually ended up producing 200-500 cards). Sometimes, if chapter had a particularly thorny historiographical point that needed making, I’d do the same thing with my secondary source quotes.
To plan a chapter, I’d sit with a yellow legal pad and my cards, and start reading. As I went, I’d write out key events (with dates), and themes. Each point got its own index card page number so I’d know where to find the evidence I needed. Once I read everything, I used my notes to make a detailed outline.
After that, I could sit down and write, essentially plugging the quotes from the index cards into the points I already knew I wanted to make. I found index cards particularly useful once I got to the writing part because I enjoy the ability to physically flip back and forth between several different quotations. I can even pull index cards out of the stack and place them side by side in front of me—the page numbering makes it easy to replace them once I’m done.
I should say that this method does not produce a beautiful first draft. To be honest, it produces a pretty mediocre piece of writing. But I’m the sort of writer who needs to produce a “here’s what happened chronologically” chapter before I can edit it into a “here’s why it matters” chapter. And I found that getting the chronology down was half the battle to writing the damn thing in the first place.
As I look ahead to the behemoth task of turning the dissertation into a book, I’m willing to admit that I could stand to update my methods and open myself up to more sophisticated forms of note-taking.
Readers, any note-taking tips/programs/tricks you use to keep track of your research? Please feel free to share in the comments below!