Write It Down, You Will Forget (I Promise)

Taking thorough, precise notes on archival collections is crucial to the long-term usefulness of your research trip. You may think that you will remember the contents of what you read, exactly what documents you read, and where the documents came from. I assure you that you will not. 

Screenshot of my first page of notes from the  NJWB Collection . Copyright of the author.

Screenshot of my first page of notes from the NJWB Collection. Copyright of the author.

Each individual has their own process when it comes to taking research notes, but there are two essential tasks that should be incorporated into the process. The first is to record what you have looked at, and the second is to record what you have not looked at so that you can find it again later. Research projects take unexpected twists and turns. A letter to a lawyer may seem boring or insignificant the first time you read it, but it might become a critical piece of evidence when you later realize that the letter's author was involved in a controversial lawsuit. 

My process, as seen above, is to describe the contents of every box and folder that I open. I regularly ask myself, "what will I want to know when I go back to look at these notes?" At the bare minimum, I know that for each document I will need the title of its folder, the date it was written, and the names of the author(s). These are the "vitals," the basic identifying markers for archival material. I will also want to know if I took a photograph of the page, made a photocopy, or decided it was sufficient to summarize the text. 

Sometimes I open a folder and realize that the records inside are not what I expected them to be, based on the title of the folder. In that case my note is brief. I just need to remind my Future Self not to waste time revisiting this folder. My note quickly explains what documents are in the folder and my reasoning for why I don't believe they are relevant. Other times I open a folder and  every single document seems like it was expressly written for me to find all these years later.  For those folder, my notes can go on for pages and pages and pages, endless stream of consciousness reflections on the documents, the stories they tell, the dates and years and place.... 

If I am in a rush--at the archive for a "smash and grab" visit--I usually do not have time to read the documents. I keep a log of what boxes and folders I view, and I write down the authors and dates for each document that I photograph. The one time I failed to do this, I ended up with a set of pictures that I couldn't identify. I didn't know where they came from or why I thought, at the time, that they were important to capture. I assumed I would remember later, but by the following week I was totally clueless. Total rookie move. 

When I have more time, I prefer to read through documents as I go through each folder. Not every page is important or worth noting, but for the documents that help tell my story I make sure to note the "vitals" and then try to summarize the main points or important events that it describes. Sometimes I take down important quotes, especially if the text helps convey the tone of a correspondence or neatly encapsulates the gist of an argument. If I do a thorough enough job of recording these details, I do not need to take a photograph or make a photocopy. I know that if I need to review the original again later, to clarify a point or gather more information, my notes can guide me back to the source. 

After an archival visit or when I finish reading through a collection, I also make sure to write down when the notes were taken. This was recommended to me by an advisor early on in graduate school, though I confess that I can't remember why they thought it was so important to do. To date, it has never come in handy for me, but I'm constantly surprised by the information I demand of my archival notes. I'm sure it will become clear one of these days.

I'm absolutely fried after a long week of research. I was incredibly productive, but that means I have all the more work to do when I return to Pittsburgh. Next week I will write about document processing and share advice on how to organize the giant mess of information that is gathered during an archival trip. It's a tedious process that probably will make for tedious reading, but I hope that it will be helpful to novice researchers who are grappling with this overwhelming task.