I was2017-09-20 19.31.33

 

I was fascinated by this series of posts on Twitter by Bradley Irish…  It’s true, I think.  I was reminded of some interviews done by the Marine Lives project last year which looked at the way historians carry out research using electronic databases.  I wrote a short blog post at the time, which made much the same point that Bradley did – we rarely talk about the ways in which we carry out the research that leads to our outputs, be they books, articles, websites, even blog posts…  Okay, we might (and probably do) mention our methodology in the output itself, but not in the level of detail that Bradley and I both meant.  There are students out there who might find this sort of openness helpful.  Heavens, I might find it helpful.  The way that I work as an academic morphed out of the way I worked as an undergraduate 20 odd years ago.  There was nothing planned, and certainly nothing taught, about it. I can only remember one single conversation about how to sit down and do the research I do, and it consisted of something like this:

‘Prof. X keeps all their research notes in a single, huge file – it makes it really easy to search for a key term or a person…’

And that was it.  Thinking about it, it wasn’t really a conversation at all.

As I embark on finding something new to work on over the next few months (plenty of ideas, by the way, just nothing concrete yet), I’m going to write a few posts about what I’m doing along the way, subtitled ‘the way I work’.  If anyone felt moved to join me, or to respond, that would be great.  I’m absolutely sure that I’ve got plenty to learn.

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Back at the beginning of July, I chatted via Skype to Colin Greenstreet of the Marine Lives project about how I do my research.  It was one of a number of interviews that Colin carried out so that the project leaders could tweak the functionality of their database in order to make it as useful as possible for the end users.  It struck me at the time that this is something, in my experience at least, we rarely talk about: how we actually go about doing the research that leads to those papers and publications.

I’ve only ever done what felt natural to me.  Generally speaking, I Google things first, then I read a lot and make notes, usually in the form of direct quotations from the author with page numbers.  When I actually come to use them in my work, I often paraphrase, of course, but when I’m making notes I prefer to write down what the author actually said so that I know I’ve got it right.  As for primary sources, I tend to collect them in folders, both digitally and often physically as well – I scrawl all over the physical copies. I use a lot of online databases, especially Early English Books Online, and boy do I miss access to the State Papers Online

I collect my notes on a project in a single working document, then start another one for the end product – be it paper, article or chapter – so that I can swap easily from one to another.  When I think I’ve finished what I’m working on, I copy them into my (now rather enormous) ‘research file’.  It might be unwieldy, but at least it makes searching fairly straightforward – there’s only one place to look.

Colin posted the results of the interviews, including mine, on the Marine Lives project website (and you can keep up to date with Marine Lives developments via the project blog). I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how other people conduct their research.  I developed my methods by trial and error over time, and I wonder whether it would benefit us to chat a bit more about the methods we use – I’m sure that there are ideas that other people have that would work for me too, or even be more efficient.  Up to now, I’d never thought to ask.