In this blog and following entries, I will be chronicling my experiences as I conduct research for the upcoming exhibit here at the Hays-Heighe House, tentatively entitled Prelude to War: Everyday Life in Harford County in 1811. My end result won't be a research paper that only the professor reads. My end result is a house full of panels that will be seen by hundreds of people for the next year! Talk about pressure....but the process is the same, whether you are writing a 5-page paper or designing an exhibit.
So where to start?
1. Get familiar with your surroundings.
For my first research trip off-campus, I headed to the Historical Society of Harford County with two of the members from our advisory committee. I have been to the historical society many times in the past, but never with this new project in mind. It's easy to be lost in a new environment, so what to do?
ASK! for a short tour of the facility to find out where the materials are. This is also important to find out what they DON'T have. No point in wasting your time looking for a certain collection of photographs if that collection is at the Maryland Historical Society for example. (And the best way to get familiar with a place? Volunteer! The Historical Society or here at the Hays-Heighe would love to get your help, hint hint :)
2. Read up on secondary sources to help fill in the background information.
You don't have to be an expert on any particular subject, you just need to know how to find out information on that topic. This is a great time to read published books that give an overall history of a person, place, or event. And places like historical societies and archives will have books that the public library probably won't have, books that have passages like this:
They immediately surrounded the said English
and discharged a volley of ten shots, killing the said
John Fouster, and at a second volley wounded William
Wigwell, notwithstanding which shot, they fought
them three hours and made their retreat good, since
which time the said Indians have killed eleven head of
cattle and twenty head of hogs.
(History of Harford County, Maryland, Walter W. Preston, 1901)
Anyway, if you feel you must use Wikipedia to get information, now is the only time to do so! It doesn't count as a source in academia, but I will admit, it is a good place to go for clues to acceptable sources, and for those times when you have absolutely no idea what the topic is!
3. Narrow down your research questions.
After reading the background sources, you should be in a better position to ask intelligent questions on your subject, or at least find a good point in which to settle your focus. Here is the "Goldilocks" moment: your topic can't be too broad or too narrow. It has to be just right!
For example: if your topic is the War of 1812 in Maryland, this is pretty broad. There were a lot of counties established at that time and several battles and smaller campaigns, so you will be writing for pages. If your topic is how Thomas Archer Hays served as quartermaster of the 40th regiment Maryland militia, this is too narrow. You will probably be able to write 2 paragraphs.
4. Doing good research means asking good questions.
As you read and write and take notes (always remember to write out full citations and quotes), actively asking questions as you go along will help you do better research and write a better paper. As I went through the research process at the historical society, my focus shifted from just the Hays family - to the relation between the people listed on the 1810 census and how the militia was organized into jurisdictions. But then figuring that out will necessitate my going back to the Hays family listed in 1810. So remember: research is a back and forth process between asking questions, finding out the answer, and then asking more questions of the original research. It can be frustrating, but you will come away with a deeper understanding of the material and better focused on your critical thinking skills!
So that was my first blog on the exhibit research process. Join me next time for Part 2!
Ann S. Persson, Hays-Heighe House coordinator