Adventures in Research

Yes, that title is a takeoff of the 1987 movie Adventures in Babysitting. I have totally just dated myself, but high five to anyone who has seen it.

Ahem. I’m currently working on several non-fiction book proposals (two books on women’s suffrage in the U.S. and a biography) and so I’ve been doing a lot of research. Today I thought I’d share some of the cooler experiences this has brought about.

One thing you need to know first is that one of my all-time favorite books is A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. It takes place in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the main character, Diana, is an academic researcher.

From the TV version of A Discovery of Witches, which premieres today in the U.S. This is Diana in the Bodleian (yes, it really looks like that). Note the clear plastic book cradle and the white cord-like weights on each side of her.

Over the holidays I had my first experience with archival research at Washington University in St. Louis and at the Missouri Historical Society library (also in St. Louis). At Wash U, I worked with a book cradle (which is just a foam thing that holds the book while you are reading) for the first time and weighted cords that keep the book open (I didn’t end up needing those). I felt like a real researcher, even though what I read wasn’t centuries old; it was just a dissertation from 1965.

The special collections room at the Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis
The dissertation I was reading on its cradle.

But even cooler was my experience at the Missouri Historical Society Museum. There, I totally felt like Diana Bishop. I had to surrender all my personal belongings into a locker and I could only either type my notes or write in pencil. They wouldn’t let me take pictures of the documents, but I was able to get a few of the room:

One part of the reading room of the Missouri Historical Society Library.

There, I got to:

  • Hold in my hand record books from the Civil War, hand-written by the husband of the woman I’m writing about. It was so crazy to trace his actual handwriting with my fingers. He was a claims agent so the books listed every pension/pay claim by a solider’s widow or orphan that he processed. I only looked at one book out of seven (that was all I needed for my purposes), but I bet each book listed at least 1,000 names. It was also sobering to think of the scale of the loss. Being able to touch history like that really brings it to life.
This isn’t the document, but it is similar.
  • Read the letter he wrote to the Historical Society bequeathing the books to them (Not a copy; the actual letter. It was tucked in the back of one of the books.)
  • Trace him and his wife as they moved around St. Louis over a 40-year period using old city directories (I guess they preceded phone books). I really felt like I was stalking them the old fashioned way, you know, before Google. It was also cool to see the city grow in size just by watching the directories get thicker each year.
  • BONUS: I also found the address for Victoria Woodhull’s second husband right around the time the two met. No records for Victoria, but that isn’t surprising since she was doing business under an assumed name anyway.

I’ll be going back to Wash U soon to finish the section of the dissertation I didn’t get to. Then in June I’ll be visiting the University of Virginia archives in Charlottesville to try to get a hold of their family papers for this couple. Who know what adventures that will bring?!!

I wish I could find the words for how cool it is to experience history in a whole new way with this type of original documentation. Awe and speechlessness are the only ones coming to mind. But it is more than that; there is an emotional component, a connection to the past that you feel in your heart. It’s totally different than seeing a picture/photocopy/scan or reading a book where the author describes the document. This may sound odd, but there is an element of humanity that lingers in those original documents, one you can feel.

If you ever get the chance to visit your local historical society, do it. Mine had really cool stuff like a whole series of books listing soldiers during the Civil War and others just on marriages in Virginia or New York (or another state. I think they had those for most states). I would imagine you could really slay genealogical research at a place like that. And they had two types of card catalogs, the one like we had when I was little and then a bigger one that didn’t list books, but rather was almost like researcher’s notes; snippets of information. Kind of like hyperlinks on the web, but physical.

In case you forgot what a card catalog looks like. Source: Adobe Stock.

I love having the ability to view documents online (like census records and old newspapers) because that is great when you can’t view them in person. But when you can it’s an experience like no other. I think if more people were given the opportunity to touch a piece of history (especially as kids), they would have more appreciation for it and for those who lived before us.

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