This post originally appeared on our class blog for Hist 209: Research and Writing in History. I pondered for a long time how best to model a blog post to my Hist 209 01 students. I decided that demonstrating what some of my research was like in my early PhD years could be useful. It would also offer them just one example of how public AND academic historians can utilize blogging. There are no shortage of amazing public/history related blogs out there. Great examples include the National Council on Public History (NCPH) blog, “History@Work,” the Junto Blog of early American history, and Pamela Toler’s blog “History in the Margins.”
As digital skills are increasingly necessary in many of today’s fields, our public history students need to understand the fundamentals of digital public history. This includes blogging. Posts need to be readable. They need to be engaging. And they need to contain a multitude of elements, like subheadings, multimedia, links, and folksonomic elements (i.e. tagging). According to Thomas Cauvin in Public History: A Textbook of Practice, “digital tools are transforming the work of historians…” (pg. 174) Not only are being digitized, but scholars can reach wider audiences through digital publication. And public history venues can exhibit vastly more than physical displays can hold.
Blogging, in particular, can be a great way to crowdsource and engage the public with various projects. For example, MarineLives.org has crowdsourced the transcription and translation of many archival documents like UK High Court of Admiralty records and Probate records. This makes such documents easily accessible to the public. This is not only for those who cannot visit the archives physically, but also for those who have difficulty deciphering the handwriting. And the Preserve the Baltimore Uprising Archival Project enables the community to contribute and shape the narrative of protest and unrest in Baltimore. What follows, then, is an example for my students about how they can blog effectively to engage their audience.
I learned a lot of valuable information during each of these trips. Some of it was related to my work, some of it was learning about how to be a better research. There is no better method to becoming a better researcher than to physically enter an archive and get your hands on the records. During my first major research trip, in England, one valuable lesson I learned was to double-check the archive’s operating hours before making the mile-long walk in frigid January temperatures. I woke up bright and early that Monday morning, excited to dive head-first into my research. Turns out that the National Archives in Kew are closed on Mondays.
I also learned that you should make sure your camera is fully-charged. And that you remembered to buy/bring a memory card. There are few feelings worse than showing up ready to get through some volumes only to realize you have a dead camera on your hands. Needless to say, I’m glad I had 8 weeks in England because I made a ton of mistakes in the first 2 weeks. And I still have a lot to learn when it comes to being a good researcher.
Research is a Process
Below is a list of just a few tips and tricks you might utilize as you venture into the world of research: [This list is my own, with tips adapted from William Cronon and Richard Marius]
ask good questions
identify your audience
imagine your ideal sources
determine what sources you can realistically access
keep an open mind (don’t limit your searches to narrow keywords or phrases)
question your sources
take notes (and make them thorough so you can refer back without forgetting why you made that note)
avoid confirmation bias
mine bibliographies to check out their sources
don’t rely solely on digitally available sources (there might be transcription/translation errors, for example)
ask for help
develop new questions based on your sources
seek scholarly secondary sources (i.e. monographs via reputable publishers and peer-reviewed journal articles; general websites, encyclopedias, etc. are not usually considered “scholarly”)
Examples from the Archives
What follows are some examples from my time in the archives researching piracy, smuggling, and illicit trade in the early modern Caribbean-Atlantic. Some of the documents I found were relevant to my research. But many were not. And some of them were downright amusing. Whether the sources were relevant to my work or not, each document contributed to my overall experience. You’ll see that I don’t have the volumes listed below. That’s because these were taken with my cell phone. I photographed all of my true archival work with a Nikon point-and-shoot camera and noted in a research journal. Again, many rookie mistakes.
Initially I thought that this document would be immensely helpful. It listed a number of prizes brought into the local admiralty. While it was useful, several pages were missing, which made it difficult to properly contextualize.
Although relatively difficult to read, this is some of the better handwriting I encountered. According to this deposition in 1719, “…and after all the said Pirates were all gon[sic] out of the said River, he the Informant understood that the Inhabitants on Shoar had received several parcels of goods from the said Pirates…”
Sometimes prize vessels just weren’t worth it… In 1796 a treasury record states that “…the Yellow Fever was brought to Bermudas in a Prize vessel by which upwards of two hundred of the Inhabitants had fallen victims…”
These were the best records to come across. I got an idea of what went unrecorded in illicit activities by seeing what was recovered.
Some repercussions of the American Revolution. #SorryFrance
I found this 1614 admiralty deposition while in the Netherlands. My Dutch reading skills were not up to par for that trip, BUT, I did find some useful items.
Being governor of Virginia in the mid-17th century must have been quite a chore. Here, a deposition says that Berkeley was “abused and Called Pittiful, ffollow Puppy, and Sonn of a Whore...” Nothing worse than being called a follow puppy I suppose.
This came from my time in the Bermuda Archives. 3000 pounds sterling for “scandall and defamation.” Ouch.
Some men finding themselves unemployed and in distress; but they “helped themselves by unsavoury bitches…”
In 1796, a resident of Bermuda reportedly “…had lately spoken very disrespectfully of me in the Billiard Room…he has said that the Governor was a ‘damned Republican Rascal’...” A warrant was issued and he was punished.
A 1775 map detail of the Mississippi River by Nathaniel Lindegreen.
An 18th century coded document I found in the State Papers volumes. I didn’t have time to find the cypher to decode the letter.
Apparently in 1660s Jamaica, Governor Edward D’Oyley banned people from carrying a “stick of fire” or a “pipe of tobacco lighted” through a field of canes in Jamaica.