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.

Advertisements

Yesterday I logged in to my Manchester University library account and discovered that I can no longer renew my books.  This came as a bit of a surprise.  There’s nothing urgent, you understand, it just brought home to me the fact that, slowly and surely, I’m being set adrift in the big, wide world again.  I still sit here at my desk and get on with my work, but Chicken Licken keeps telling me that the sky is falling in, and he’s right. One day soon, I’ll attempt to log in to the State Papers Online or EEBO, only to find that access is denied. It’s not a day I’m looking forward to at all.  I no longer count as a student in the eyes of the university – I haven’t, actually, since last October.

I am academically homeless.

I think the proper, or at least more normal, term is ‘independent researcher’, and maybe ‘academically homeless’ sounds a bit needy, but it reflects quite accurately how I feel.  There’s security in a big institution and not just in the shape of database access.

Research and writing at the moment comes in fits and starts, broken by rounds of job applications and fellowship applications.  I have a book proposal to write (who warned you about needing to learn that new skill when you started out?) and I am haunted from day to day by the ever-present spectre of John Roberts.  Sometime in the next few weeks I’m going to decide whether to write the article again from scratch or knock him on the head for good.  It might well be the latter, in the interests of the book.  Maybe dead horses should not be flogged, as my Fiend once said.  The trouble is that I never was very good at giving up on things.