Saturday, March 21, 2020

My Tips for Effective Historical Research Notes

Here is just a small stack of the notebooks and tablets I used
When I was writing the biography, I had access to some existing research that included interview transcripts, material on tape, and collated records of old newspaper articles from an out-of-State archive. After reading through all that, in addition, I spent a considerable amount of time going through physical paperwork and records at a couple of different libraries that hold archives from filmmakers and organizations, as well as doing my own interviews. I also did online research at various sites, most of them membership/subscription services. Finally, I spent quite a lot of time reading magazines and books either in physical form or digitally. The latter was easier because I could use a search term to discover useful quotes.

I learned a few tricks using Google searches and I got good at scanning written material quickly. I also learned the enormous value of having an index in your non-fiction book. After some trial and error, here's what I learned about how to organize research notes when you are writing Creative nonfiction, or a historical novel or anything that relies on research.

Keep very meticulous notes about the sources of your research

Not everything will be quoted and have a footnote/endnote, but additional sources should be included in your bibliography. I recommend having a dedicated notebook for this purpose. I also wrote down all that information on the page of my research notebook (a composition book) with my notes from the source.

Go to the opening dedication page with all the publication information. Note the full name of all the authors or editors, the publisher and the city in which they are based, the month and year of publication (even though most of the time you will only write down the year.) Note the chapter and page numbers that you read, especially for any quotes that you will use. For e-books, there probably won't be a page number, but there still should be a chapter. 

When you are looking at books online, including Kindle books at Amazon,  you can scroll all the way down below the publisher's blurb and summary of the book, to find the publication information.

When you are planning to quote from a magazine, you need the name of the article writer if it is available (sometimes there won't be a byline and it will say "Staff Writer"), the name of the publication of course, the volume number if available, and the date of publication. You also want the title of the article. Don’t neglect to write that down because writers or columnists often have multiple articles in a publication.

If you are planning to photocopy or tear out sheets from a magazine that you are for your files, also keep the front cover and the publishing information page - that is sometimes before the contents or at the end of the magazine - along with the relevant pages. In the James Coburn archives, I found a number of magazine articles where they kept only the pages of the article, and I had to do a lot of detective work to ascertain the actual publication. In the end, I had one magazine where I couldn't tell you the issue even though I did manage to work out which magazine it was. This is especially important when a magazine has ceased publication and no longer has accessible archives. Letters didn't produce a response. Of course, I could have traveled to London and visited a library there, but sometimes you just have to get on with the writing.

If you are using online sources including blogs for your research material, it is important to make a note of the writer, the blog title, and the title of the specific post, plus the date of posting. Write down the full web address of the relevant item, and the date that you looked it up. The date when you “accessed” the material is part of the footnote.  When you come to publish your book, it is worth revisiting the sites to ensure that the blog post is still available. You can either update the date visited, or if the link is now broken, it's okay to say so.

Pencil notes
The point of footnotes/endnotes is to ensure that you are following fair use guidelines, giving credit properly where it is due, to avoid any accusation of plagiarism, and so that interested people can check on your research and follow it back.

When you are doing research for your own fiction writing purposes, you are less likely to cite sources in your story. However, it's good to keep the records so that in the future you can find your material again, direct anyone who queries you to the research, and who knows, maybe one day you will write a non-fiction piece about the world that your book is set in. 

Make your research time productive

Research can be so seductive. I found that I would go off on long rabbit-hole tangents exploring all kinds of interesting tidbits that were not actually useful for the biographical narrative that I was writing. If you have a time limit, it's important to be aware of how much of a time suck or procrastination tool research can be.

I recommend that you keep a notebook for your ongoing research that is immediately relevant, and another notebook for sources and ideas that you might wish to revisit at a later time when your main project or assignment is completed. The research is not going to go away. You can always return to the library, the website, or the book later.

Here’s is a cheat for research: When searching on Google, do a Google Books search. This will access other things than just books, including magazines and some journals.

When you click on the link to the Google Books page for a particular source, you can often then put specific search terms into the box. Most of the time the searches are limited because of copyright, but you can usually read some of the pages. 

Then, you can take the book title that you have discovered, and go to Amazon and find the listing there. Go to the Hardcover if available, and do a “Look Inside”. Most of the time the e-book format will only show the first 10% of the book and the back cover, but the hardcover will allow searching with a search box. 

I found that between the two ways of looking inside books, I was able to find the occasional quote, or ascertain quickly whether this book was worth purchasing or finding at the library because it had a lot of useful content.

Useful websites, and’s document search features were crucial for me to find material and documents related to my research. These are subscription services. Another helpful place is the National Archives. When you find documents online within an archive, it is important to make detailed notes of where they come from for your citations. For example the “author” of the Census is the United States government. (BTW, has the Census searchable by name; the National Archives does not, yet. Sometimes you have to consider which factor you want to save - time or money.)

US Census Page
The Library of Congress also has archives. And many countries have an archived system connected to their own government and civil records.

Final thoughts

Every day more and more material is becoming digitized and is available online for free or via subscriptions.  Digital catalogs at libraries are also becoming more common. I found the search feature at the Margaret Herrick Library invaluable. I was able to reserve items from various Collections and then go into the library to have them ready for me to access.  By the way, check the rules at whichever Library you plan to visit before you go. At Margaret Herrick they don't allow ink pens of any kind. They do supply pencils, but I prefer my own. They also don't allow phones, so be sure to tell people that you won't be available for certain amounts of time. They do supply lockers for you to keep your stuff in, and let you use your laptop.

Your librarian can be your best friend. They can often have a greater understanding of what is inside the stacks and research collections, beyond Search terms you may have thought of when exploring the catalog.

Having visual material can be helpful too. I use Pinterest to hold research material that I wish to explore more of on a secret board. 

Good luck with your research - remember KEEP COPIOUS NOTES and record all details of your citations.

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