Perhaps you have begun to research your family genealogy or the history of your house, and you have discovered that research requires a specific skill set, a learnable skill set. Many resources are available to tell you how to collect historical information and where it can be found.
Dig a little deeper, and you will discover that mindset is as important as skill set when you tackle a research query. These six mindset shifts will help you refine your research skills and lead you to better discoveries.
1. Make No Assumptions
To improve your research skills, recognize that you have an agenda and leave that agenda behind. Let me share an example from my own family genealogy.
My maternal grandfather and his siblings had the most beautiful brown skin and black, poker-straight hair, and that fact got under the skin of his sister. The family’s roots extend back through many generations in central Maine, and family lore held that their grandmother was “a squaw,” (their racist pejorative, not mine). And so, the sister set out to prove that there was no Native American branch in the family tree.
Her research findings? As you may have guessed, no Native American branch in the tree. Fraught with prejudice, she used her research to craft her identify as white, and only white.
Two things made it possible; her selective research and the limited historical resources documenting her grandmother, Minnie Ola Nickerson (1869 - 1937).
This story never set right with me, and many years later (and a quick Family Search query) the research stands corrected. Minnie Ola’s mother, my third great-grandmother, was Mahala Kinney Dunham (1834 - 1891). The name Mahala translates as Native American woman.
An extreme example, I grant you, however you will be well served to take time to examine your own agenda before you begin sorting through historical sources. As an historian, I accept that I can only interpret history through my own lens, that of my time and my personal experience. I accept the challenge to identify my lens and pursue objectivity in my work, knowing I too will make errors, and those who come after me will correct them.
2. Trust the Data (with a Caveat)
With historical sources like census records and street directories, ask why an historical data set was compiled. When you understand why the data mattered, you will see its priorities as well as its limitations and inherent bias.
For a current project, I am reading a decade of social notices in the newspaper of a small community in the 1930’s. Social notes are highly mannered and gendered representations of the self in an era before electronic social media. Social notes are happy. They were submitted by women, and they omit much.
By linking newspaper, birth and cemetery records, I am exploring a story of pregnancy loss and adoption to better understand the visible and invisible aspects of one woman’s experience in her community and in her time. The newspaper social notices hide more than they reveal, and their bias is quite clear when compared with other data sets.
3. Assume You Will Not Remember
Good researchers make complete citations for everything they discover. Everything. Never assume memory will serve. It will not. Unsure how to cite archival materials and online sources? YouTube is filled with excellent guidance.
4. Plan to Hand-Off Your Research
Your children will not inherit your online accounts. Your best friend will not be able to access your cloud files, therefore create a paper trail. It is our duty as diligent researchers to make it easy for someone else to pick up where we left off. Save and print your work.
A horror story. When I was a younger historian in the midst of a two-year research project for the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, I moved my office and three running feet of research files into my new (old) house. I carefully loaded my heavy hanging-file frame into the back of my car. When I bumped in over my new (old) dirt driveway, the load shifted. I opened the hatch back unawares, and a paper avalanche spilled around my feet.
I had to pick up, literally, where I left off. The lesson? Use ring binders, one for each project. They are secure, spill-proof and easy to hand off to another researcher.
5. Practice Generosity
If you have done any research at all, you have discovered the history community is generous. When you let folks know what you are up to, they want to help. People who manage archives and historical collections want them to be used, want the meaning held within them to be shared. Join the community and share your discoveries.
This can be as simple as emailing juicy bits (with citations!) to fellow researchers or a bit more complex by compiling a report to share with the keepers of collections which have informed your work. Share generously.
6. Tell Me Why
Most importantly, the best researchers and historians tell us not what happened in the past, but why. They help us see through new eyes and empathize with (or be repulsed by) people long gone.
Historians often say we “do” history, and re-do and re-do again. Recognizing that we are limited by our own lens, history gets written and rewritten to reflect the questions we need answered now. Different questions than those asked generations before us.
An engaging interpretation of historical research draws connections between fragmentary bits of data. It places the subject in a larger context, and it poses unanswered questions. Achieving closure to a line of inquiry may be impossible, but if we have raise questions, we have done good work.