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Research Methods

March 20, 2016

As visitors to this blog may have noticed, the academic articles I have posted here over the last seven years have reduced in frequency due to the demands of dissertation writing and my ongoing work at the National Academy of Sciences. I am also working on several projects with an eye toward publishing. This is a tricky prospect when it comes to blogging. I want to share all the incredibly interesting things I have found, but I also need to eventually make a living writing interesting stories about the history of American business in Nazi Germany, the history of scientific research in the U.S., etc.

Thus, what I would like to do today is not necessarily share specific information-but more of a guide that I wish my past self had read as I embarked on the journey to become a competent historian and writer. Here is a list of important tips in no particular order:

1. Keep a journal when doing research.

I cannot emphasize how important this is – and it is never too early to start doing this in your academic career. In the archives, write down your impressions. No matter how good your memory is, you are not going remember everything. Describe your sources in detail. What box are you looking at? What record group? Is this a document? What are your initial reactions to it? How does this relate to the research questions you are asking? Moreover, this method is good not just for writing about your research sources, but also about the archives themselves. Where are the bathrooms? Where do you get something to eat? What are the idiosyncrasies of the staff? What is local transportation like? This will help, especially if you revisit archives later. This information can also help your peers, who may be planning to visit the research facility in question. Finally, keeping a journal is very important if you forget something or miss something that you later believe is important. This will allow you to do forensics on your own research methods and trace back where you found something (or what you might need to examine next!).

2. Give yourself time at the beginning of an archive visit to simply figure out how to navigate the facility.

If I had a dime for how many times I underscheduled the amount of time I would need at an archive, I’d be a rich man. Give yourself time to figure out how to get to an archive on your first day. When I was in Koblenz recently, I decided to walk to the Bundesarchiv from my hotel. Even with google maps, I still ended up walking the wrong way, and did not anticipate the steep hills I would need to hike up. This ate up time (but was good exercise!). Because I had given myself extra time to make these kinds of mistakes, I was not stressed out when I got there.


Overlooking Koblenz on the way to the Bundesarchiv

Give yourself extra time to figure out things. Food, transportation, bathrooms, and how to fill out the necessary forms to request research materials are all things to schedule more time for. This will help you have a more smooth experience. Also, be nice to archivists. They are experts and can be very valuable sources of information.

3. Contemplate and update your research questions.

If you can help it, do not confine yourself when doing research. Good research questions often lead to more questions. You should have something to guide your search, and I am the first person to admit that I consistently get my butt kicked by my dissertation committee for making sure I have well thought out research question. A research question is your guide in the archives. It will help you narrow your search and use your time effectively, rather than getting lost in details that, while interesting, do not help you complete your project.

4. Evaluate your sources.

Remember: Humans are not infallible. Everyone has motivations for why they put something to paper. It is never too early to think about the intentions behind the information you are looking at. Read critically and skeptically. Not everything is a conspiracy, but you cannot always take what you are looking at at face value. Crappy historians and conspiracy theorists often create “smoking guns” simply by not evaluating a piece of information and looking at the context in which it was created. It never hurts to ask yourself questions that might be raised by others about your sources. Is what is being said actually accurate? Is there a possible reason why it might not be? This is good to keep in mind. Also, any good librarian will tell you to use the CRAAP test when evaluating sources. I cannot stress how important information literacy is in our current age. Use it!

5. Record box and file numbers!

There is very little that is more annoying for a scholar than to look at the footnotes in a book that just made some major point, and find an incomplete footnote. This essentially means that if you really want to follow up (which is the whole point of a footnote!) then you have to redo the research. This could take hours, weeks, or years to figure out what the writer was referencing. You may never find it. There are certainly cases where this is true in my own research quests.

Write down box and file numbers! If you’re at the U.S. National Archives, keep in mind that there are often Entry numbers, each with their own numerical sets of boxes. The more information you can provide on how to find this source, the more appreciative future scholars will be. A good method, if you are allowed to use digital photography, is taking a picture of the label on the box you are looking at. It also helps to take pictures of any labels or writing on folders, too.

6. Digital Photography

If you are allowed to take photos, here are a couple pointers. Pick a place in the reading room with decent light and less glare, if possible. Take a picture that captures a little more than the page you are looking at. I learned this lesson working with a good friend who is an expert in FBI docs. He pointed out that there were often important codes printed on the edges of reports, which contain designations that help tell you what topic the source is about and the agency analyzing the source.

Also, if time permits, take photos of whole folders in their entirety. Get every page. You never know when a page before or after the document that interests you might also have important information on it. I realize that this is not always possible because of the sheer volume of paper in some collections; however, given the increasing cheapness of digital storage, storing lots of photos should not be a major problem. Also, digital collections can be very useful in the future and help create a backup of important historical documents.

7. Organize your time. AKA To-do lists!

I am a big fan of to-do lists when I do research. I am not slavish when it comes to making a schedule. Instead, I make a schedule, do my best to stick to it, and then rewrite my list depending on my progress. I’ve found that momentum can work both ways – whether you are ahead of schedule or behind. If you are behind, it’s easier to stay behind – if you are ahead, it’s easier to stay ahead. I noticed that one thing that helps me stay ahead, or at least making steady progress, is by creating and updating schedules and to-do lists on a regular basis. This helps you track your progress and makes you feel like you are getting somewhere. This isn’t a magic bullet, but it does help you get an overview of your goals and the steps to accomplishing them.


That’s all I’ve got for now! Be sure to revisit this blog periodically, as I will try to add more tips of the trade in the near future. Not only is it good to share wisdom (often from time-consuming mistakes), but also serves as a helpful reminder, too.




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  1. megan permalink

    From the other side:

    1. Look at the archives website ahead of time for rules. Fill out any forms ahead of time. Look for finding aids, and if there aren’t any ask! before you visit.
    2. Check their calendar, especially if you are visiting archives in a foreign country. It’s amazing how many foreign researchers buy their plane tickets for a one week visit before checking our American calendar and only later realize they’ve lost 20% of their research time because of a Federal holiday. Germany is the same way- especially because some Landes celebrate holidays that other don’t. Bavaria closes for St. John the Baptist day, Hesse doesn’t.
    3. If certain archivists are particularly helpful, or it is a small archives with only a few reference archivists, learn their names. If you need to write back, use their names in the follow-up email. We’re more likely to remember you (and your project) if you’ve taken the time to learn our names.
    4.A particularly fruitful trip when the archivists have been helpful merits a thank you email that can be forwarded to higher-up. Mentions in the acknowledgement section of your dissertation or book are also helpful to the archivists because we can show them to the powers that be which helps with our funding. Even a “thank you to the staff at XYZ archives” will suffice- but naming particular archivists is nice too (We tell our moms. Well, at least I do.)
    5. If you realize a collection has been reorganized/renumbered, write down the old number. It will help you with footnotes in older research.
    6. If the archives allows you to order materials in advance, send the list in prioritized order with the most important collections first. If the archives can’t pull everything, they at least know what is important to you and can try to get those ready for your visit. Send the list in far in advance as you can.

    • Jay Weixelbaum permalink

      thanks, Megan! There’s a lot I forgot! People, definitely do research on the facility and look at finding aids (if possible) before you go!

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