Research for “In the Words of Women”

The book Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jaytook approximately four+ years to research and write. In the Words of Women published in 2011 took six years, understandable because the scope was much broader than that of the first book and the research more challenging because many of the subjects were little known and obscure. On the other hand the research process was quite different for, in the space of time between books, libraries, historical societies, newspapers, and browsers like Goggle began to digitize their holdings and archives.
I was sceptical of the process at first with regard to manuscripts because I didn’t think the technology was good enough to produce legible copies. I was wrong. See for instance the Massachusetts Historical Society’s wonderful Adams Family Papers Historical Archive. The text of the correspondence between John and Abigail is clear, in part due to the legible handwriting of the pair, although you can consult a transcription if necessary. You can also zoom in on the pages and distinguish quite easily between a comma and a period, upper and lower case letters. Digitization of primary source materials allowed us to read them sitting at our computers.
There are, however, some drawbacks to this development. Digitization is a work in progress. Some institutions cannot afford the cost so there still is a large amount of material out there in manuscript form which still requires visits to libraries etc. Moreover holdings are often digitized selectively, based on someone’s judgment. Janice P. Nimura in her article in The New York Times Book Review titled “Under No Certain Search Terms” “Under No Certain Search Terms” points out another drawback: you get only the information that is relevant to the wording and focus of the search terms you entered in the browser. Nimura notes that “You find exactly what you’re looking for, and nothing that you’re not. . . . Search algorithms leave no room for serendipity, and without that, some of the magic leaks out of the pursuit of the past.” Do you remember browsing in the stacks and coming across other books of interest in the vicinity of the one you were looking for. Books that provide new information or details, or even a particular slant that you might not otherwise have discovered.
While digitization of sources relevant to the subjects of our second book was very useful and convenient, it did away with some of the excitement and pleasure of handling the actual letters, diaries and journals of the subjects, lessening the possibility of “research rapture” that scholars thrive on.

posted March 7th, 2016 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Reading old documents, Research


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