Home > History, Minnesota, Research > Research Methods to Ignore

Research Methods to Ignore

I may be a History Nerd, but I proved today in spades that I am not the smartest researcher. I’m writing this from Minneapolis, where I’m gathering information for a new book. A few months ago back in my office, doing some preliminary research online, I became convinced that the Internet and the books I had found would not be enough—or at least “authentic” enough, whatever the hell I meant by that—so I planned a trip to the Twin Cities to dig into the primary sources.

Victoria Woodhull-- one helluva woman, at least until she moved to England and became respectable

Victoria Woodhull– one helluva woman, at least until she moved to England and became respectable

I’ve worked with primary sources before, of course. Back in college, I spent countless hours at the microfilm machine, poring over old Hartford Courants and government documents for papers on immigration, among other topics. For my first bio, on Madeleine Albright, done while she was still serving in the Clinton administration, I made requests to Colorado libraries for clippings about her father’s academic career, and trekked into NYC to look at her dissertation. (I tracked down a sibling too, hoping for an interview, but word had already come down from on high: No talking to the media. But it’s for a kids’ book I explained. Still no dice. So heartless.) Then there was the train trip from Chicago down to beautiful Carbondale, home of SIU, where I went through some of the paper of Victoria Woodhull, spiritualist, advocate of free love, first American to publish Marx’s Communist Manifesto in English, presidential candidate almost 40 years before all American women could vote (with Frederick Douglass as her running mate), first woman to crack the male-dominated world of Wall Street. The work was for a historical drama still unwritten.

So, I am no stranger to archival research, if not exactly a master of it, as some of my colleagues in BIO are. But I was not prepared for the sense of “WTF am I doing here?” that crept up through me as I approached the desk of the library at the Minnesota Historical Society (an aside—the facilities there, which include a history museum, are stunning. I am not a state historical society maven, but I would bet few states have something that rival what the North Star State has.)

Yes, despite my usual attention to detail and planning, I got there today—the only day I could go, since the library is closed on Sunday and Monday, something else I failed to explore in my usual OCD-like way—and I really didn’t know what I wanted. Thankfully, I knew there was one collection of research material there I couldn’t find anywhere else, and I blurted out its name.

OK, the librarian said, which box?

Which box? Now I really felt out of my element. I imagined all the BIO folks snickering a bit. I made a stab, wrote Box 4 on the slip, and waited for the staff to wheel out a box. My random choice wasn’t totally bad; I actually found some folders with some useful information. But before I could go through it all, I had to leave for a semi-hokey bus tour related to my subject. All right, BIO bastards, stop laughing. I know: Like you could get any useful information for a serious history book from a—bus tour! Well, I like to have an idea of the geography of places I’m writing about, and while the book is about all of Minnesota, a lot of the action takes place in St. Paul. So I headed to the Wabasha St. caves, not far from the Mississippi, and let myself be driven around and lectured to for two hours.

John Dillinger slept--and was almost killed--here, at this St. Paul apartment building.

John Dillinger slept–and was almost killed–here, at this St. Paul apartment building.

I doubt, though, that most people would call it a lecture. The tour guide was more about schtick, though there was some substance. And without that little excursion, I wouldn’t have learned about Summit Avenue, supposedly home to more Victorian mansions than any other street in the country and to authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.  And there were a few tidbits I heard along the way that might prove useful. I had been hoping for pictures that might be appropriate too, though that was a bust (the gray sky and fog didn’t help with that either).

The tour over, I went back to the historical society to finish going through my box. There was little useful left, but also not enough time to get another box, so I headed back to the hotel with only one brief detour—to buy some beer. I needed it.

Tomorrow, it’s back to the research, though this time to one of the libraries at the University of Minnesota. I doubt there will be boxes of material to comb through, but at least I can access old copies of the local newspapers that aren’t available online. Maybe. You see, I didn’t think through that part of this research adventure too well either. But that’s what makes it an adventure—and me less than a professional historian. But I will muddle through the book, and I’m sure it will be fine. And if all goes well, there may be another book on the same topic. So this time next year, look for the befuddled-looking guy stumbling around the Wisconsin Historical Society library.

  1. Sorn Jessen
    December 2, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Hi, thanks for this, post. Archival research can be daunting, especially when one is going through someone’s personal papers. However, it’s not quite as bad as all that anymore. Unless your dealing with unprocessed materials, there will be a finding aid either online, or in print depending on the age of your papers, or if the library has gotten arround to digitizing the finding aids for that particular collection. Most of the time, the digital finding aids are searchable through the institution’s website. Also depending on the size of the collection, you can ask for the whole series. It’s best to use the institution’s website to digitally search the colletions before you go, but never be adverse to the power of the lucky find. Also, don’t overlook the obvious. In this instance verticle files, which often have complete bibliographies, newspaper clippings, and pamphlets can be a god-send to the researcher looking at a topic. I know this may sound obvious, but there are usually a lot of ways to manage this in such a way that when you actually travel you can make the most of your time.

    • mburgan
      December 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      If only I had seen this before my trip! Thanks for reading and for commenting.

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