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Research and the Big Picture

Historian Mar Hicks’s (@histoftech) tweetstorm on what working in the archives is like is one of the best descriptions of what it’s like to actually do history. The thing that comes across so well in her description of her  research is that as a historian, Hicks did not so much as uncover a historical narrative or even piece one together from individual bits of evidence as form it out of a body of evidence.

Historians go through many thousands of documents when they are conducting research. But it’s not always obvious what is important until well after you’ve looked at something. When historians talk about context mattering, this is one of the things they are talking about. Any given document, source, or artifact contributes to a body of evidence that must be taken as a whole. That means research requires you to play close attention to everything with no assurance any given moment of focus will pay off.

Many archives will allow you to photograph documents, but some don’t. Even assuming you can, a process that revolves photographing as many documents as you can per day and then looking at them more closely later makes it difficult to know where to take your research on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis. Which files should you request to next? Spending time with the documents helps you make more informed decisions about where to focus your research, but also slows you down by limiting how quickly you can move through any given file. When I worked in the Russian archives, I often chose to sacrifice speed for looking at the documents in more detail in the archives and making daily notes that helped me decide what to do next. Long research trips allow for this luxury, but often times historians have access to a body of documents for a much shorter period of time and have to rely on a shotgun blast of research.


Time was probably a factor and you can see the stress Hicks’ was under when working in the archive. She had to worry about getting through large and small files, handling documents with care while working in a hurry, and drawing the ire of a guard who had the ability to make her life (and research) pretty miserable. Working in archives is incredibly rewarding, but also incredibly stressful.

This is where things get interesting and where paying close attention to context paid off. Even though it was a major inconvenience and far from a sure to have a return on the investment in time spent, she kept working at it because she felt there was something to be gained. Here “completionist streak” worked in her favor when she was able to from a new narrative from her evidence.

 

 

Here, she doesn’t give herself enough credit. “All of a sudden, the story emerged.” Historians often talk this way about their work. That story didn’t emerge by itself. It wasn’t even exactly just waiting to be found by a diligent researcher who was willing to read all the meeting minutes. It was built from a body of evidence that Hicks had come to know well enough to form into something coherent. That’s the task facing historians doing their research.

 

 

And that conclusion is only born out here. Understanding the entire body of evidence is necessary to make the argument that women were “pushed out, laid off, or held back from promotion.” That’s not just limited to the archival documents in question. It’s also a question of having steeped oneself in literature from other scholars, taken the time to understand how the relationships of power worked so that that body of evidence could be interpreted in a careful and rigorous fashion, and being able to integrate all that information and knowledge into a historical understanding.

Historical research is fascinating because it is not just a matter of lining up all the pieces of evidence and calling it your narrative. It’s about being able to get your head around all of those pieces at once so that they become something whole and coherent. Your research becomes more than a narrative, as all historians know, it becomes about making an argument. Without an argument, you haven’t much of anything at all. Notice how Hicks flows right from description to argument (description of what happened to women in computing to a point about the nature of structural change and power) – this is the essence of doing good history.