In yesterday's post, I emphasized that notes are most effective when they focus on details that support your argument or that help you tell a particular story. That raises the question, however, of how do you know when a document will contribute to your study? Sometimes you go into a project already knowing what events, themes, or arguments you plan to make. Other times you go in thinking that you will write about one of thing, but then the sources lead you to make a completely different point. It's also possible to just begin reading sources without a particular intention. You just hope that the sources will inspire a question or present an interesting story for you to tell.
During my first foray into archival research, I thought absolutely every word that I read was relevant and compelling, that each source presented a simple, uncomplicated truth. I couldn't see the forest for the trees. That became problematic when I began writing my paper. There was no clear place to start, and when I went back to look at my notes it seemed that every conflict, every policy, every decision was equally as important. After many hours of paralysis, I stepped back and re-read some of the sources I remembered most clearly. I figured those were the ones I must have found to be especially engaging. The story that jumped out at me ran through a set of document from the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights, in which a building fund campaign committee described how difficult it was to raise money for the construction of a new home for the Y. My question became, "Why did such a such a desirable and necessary neighborhood institution struggle to raise funds for this badly-needed capital project?" I was then able to reanalyze the documents I had collected and to clearly identify which records helped me answer this question, and which records were tangential. Some of them provided context but did not support my argument. I was glad to have those, but I certainly did not need copious notes on each of them!
Three years later, I've gotten much better at "triaging" sources. I ask myself the following questions in order to sort documents into the categories of relevant/important, contextual/necessary, and irrelevant/tangential:
1. Does this document (or set of documents) tell about an event from start to finish? Does it/they provide all of the information I need to describe what happened?
2. Is the event, controversy, or debate described in this document related to other events/controversies/debates that I plan to study in my research project?
3. Does this document help me answer a question I am interested in?
4. Could I find other sources that I could use to "cross-examine" this document? Do I have any way to check if the event(s) described happened that way, or if the event(s) were interpreted another way by other people? [You need to have other evidence that support your documents, just like a lawyer needs evidence to support the testimony of a witness].
5. Is this source trustworthy? Who wrote it and with what intention?
If I answer yes to these questions, the document is a keeper. I let myself take notes freely, with gusto and verve. If I answer no to the first three, but think that it's a source that will help provide context--for example, to show how an organization worked, or what a particular individual was like, or to describe the physical surroundings of a place--then I would consider the document necessary but would try not to spend more than a few minutes taking notes. These sorts of documents are useful at the writing stage, when you need to fill in the details. They can also be useful for cross examining your most important documents, because they can corroborate small details that support the veracity of your interpretation.
If I answer no to all of these questions, I force myself to put the document back in the folder from which it came. I may be dying to read it, to see if there's some juicy story buried inside. I constantly have to remind myself that there are many good stories buried in the past, but I can only tell a few of them in my dissertation... and those few stories all have to make sense together.
I used this same process to choose case studies for my dissertation. I surveyed urban Jewish Community Centers across the U.S. and quickly decided whether the experience of each Center could help me answer one of my questions about postwar urban JCCs. I also asked: Does an event, controversy, or debate experienced by this organization represent a larger historical trend in American (or American Jewish) history? I had already studied the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights and wanted to include it as a case study in the dissertation, so I decided that I would narrow my focus to other Centers that experienced a Jewish to Latino demographic transition during the 1960s and 1970s. That's how I chose JCCs in Los Angeles and Miami as my other case studies. To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure if I've done a good job selecting case studies. I may decide to reevaluate as I continue the research, because the more I learn the more unsure I am that Los Angeles and Miami can help me represent a larger historical trend in American Jewish history. That's how it goes, though. As my advisor says, writing a dissertation is not fulfilling a contract. You're allowed to wing it a little! There's always contingency in research, and you can only have fun with it if you learn to accommodate and enjoy the surprises.