Doing Research

September 20th, 2013

By John Marks, Curator of Collections

In June, I wrote about writing exhibits. I probably should have written this blog first, about researching for exhibits. However, it came to mind this month as I’m teaching Public History: The Theory and Practice of Making History Relevant at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Teaching something that you’ve done automatically for many years forces you stop and think about the activity more closely.

Kerry Lippincott, our director, asked me to develop a display on Prohibition in Geneva for November’s Geneva Night Out. It’s a pretty general subject with a definite deadline. We agreed this would be a good project for college students to work on. I wrote up an assignment and gave them a list of suggested topics. Each student will do a short product on a specific part of “Prohibition in Geneva.”

Almost immediately, I began hearing, “I can’t find anything on my topic.” I think some students see assignments as tests or as artificial exercises – “the professor knows the answers, I’m just going through the motions to get a grade.” I tell my class, “This is not a drill. This is how my job goes – we pick a topic, we’re not entirely sure what we’ll find on it.”

Some basic tenets of doing research are:

  • If you’re unfamiliar with a subject, start with general information and work toward specifics. Wikipedia and online research is fine for starters.
  • Think about the challenges of the subject. Was it illegal or a cultural taboo? If so, people probably didn’t write about it, take photographs, or leave us other historical evidence
  • Think about language. People develop code words and slang for things, like illegal drinking or drug use, that can’t be discussed openly. Language changes; slang for drinking or intoxication may have been different in the 1920s, so you need to know what to look for.
  • People may be more open about illegal activities decades after the fact. Newspapers in the 1920s may not have much information, but articles from the 1960s or later – long after Prohibition was repealed – may have first-person stories about bootlegging in Geneva.
  • There are no dead ends. If you’ve truly looked everywhere and tried different search terms, then absence of information means something. Why wasn’t something in the newspaper? Was it so taken for granted that it wasn’t newsworthy? (Aside from huge events, newspapers don’t consciously record history – they sell papers). Was it taboo? Did the publisher/ owner of the paper disagree with something and didn’t want to report it? You shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but come up with more research questions to figure out the absence.
  • Finally, document everything, including the not-dead-ends. It is easy to forget what research you’ve done, particularly on big projects, so leave yourself a paper trail. In the case of academic assignments, an extensive paper trail may prove to your professor that you really did look everywhere.

Prohibition in Geneva will open November 1, 2013 for Geneva Night Out, 5-8 pm.

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