Chronologies and Indices

Even with all of the clarity a pristinely organized database bestows upon a researcher, the soul-crushing volume of information necessitates additional strategies to help move the most important knowledge into the foreground. Two methods that I have used to help me keep track of details are making a chronology and making an index.

A chronology is a glorified timeline, a visual representation of change. It highlights patterns (economic growth!) and major disruptions (coup d'etat!). A well-done chronology is a valuable reference when you want to contextualize an event or debate within the larger history of what you're studying. For example, I created a chronology of the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights from its founding in 1917 up until 1980, the final year for which I have records. Since I want it to be a simplification of my notes, I do not record every detail I know about what happened in each year. I choose special events, like changes in leadership or the inauguration of a program, or notable debates, like whether to establish draft counseling and condemn the Vietnam War. That way, when I read a document about New York City's fiscal crisis in 1975 I can quickly turn to my chronology and see how the Y reacted to the threat of budget cuts for their municipally funded programs. 

In some unknown future, when I invent a machine to add hours to the day, I plan to create chronologies for other institutions I study in the dissertation (like the Jewish Welfare Board). I'll also write one for the history of New York City. Luckily my doctoral exams taught me the broad sweep of American history during the postwar decades, so I don't have make a macro-level timeline. I could imagine that a researcher could also benefit from creating chronologies for historical actors important to their study.  A "master" chronology of all the actors and organizations in a given project would be quite an undertaking, but could prove valuable. 

What I refer to as an index is my own personal encyclopedia of the historical actors and debates that appear in my work. It's hard to keep track of all the leaders in all of the major Jewish institutions in New York City (plus all the national organizations!) and so I like to have a handy document with the basic details on the most important people. I list whatever "vitals" about them that I can find: their birth and death dates, occupation, marital status and children (if relevant), and where they lived. I also note the organizations with which they were affiliated, especially if they served on a Board of Directors. If they were involved in a major debate, I write down what position they took (for example: X was in favor of opening the JCC on Saturdays). Basically, I commit to the index any information I think I will need if I have to jog my memory about an individual's identity. I try to make entries for most of my historical actors, even when I think to myself, "how could I forget this person!" Many of the individuals I study have similar sounding names, and it's possible that I could mix them up. Or, I could mistakenly associate someone with an organization that they didn't belong to. Keeping track of basic information in an index saves me from having to look through pages and pages of notes to verify small details like that. 

Again, these are tedious extra steps that often cause me to shake my head and wonder if it's worth it... the last thing I want to do is waste my time! From experience, however, chronologies and indices become valuable reference tools that I rely on throughout the duration of a project. 



Should [It] Stay or Should [It] Go

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. 

DEVONthink Pro Office

Learning to use database software has been a slow process, but I've come to really love the tools and the interface for DEVONthink Pro Office. I chose this database over File Maker Pro after reading several reviews for each option. I think I would have done fine with either, but DEVONthink had the advantage of being used by fellow historians, and I liked knowing that I could turn to them when I had questions. 

Researchers and project managers love DEVONthink Pro Office because of its flexibility--there are many, many, many different ways to use it. The problem with this flexibility is the same as flexibility in yoga--you have to learn to work with it or you will probably get hurt. Luckily, with a database, you only risk confusion. 

To be extra sure that this was the software I wanted to commit to, I downloaded the application for a free, 30-day trial period. Immediately I found the process for importing files to be quite intuitive, but unsure of what to do next I began watching the tutorials posted on the DEVONthink website. These showed me the basic functions I would need to get my database organized, and I skipped over the more business-y applications. What I wanted to know was how I could create visual shortcuts and link information across documents and groups. 

My three favorite things about my database are the ability 1) to create nesting groups, 2) to tag documents and search by tag, and 3) to link documents together. On the recommendation of my friend Jackie, I decided to create a group for every archive I use. Since that's how I organize the collections mentally it made sense to emulate this in the database, but I could see the advantages of making collections or research trip dates be the "top" layer. Within each archival group, I nested a group for individual collections, and within those collection I nested folders for every box. This top-down organization prevents me from feeling overwhelmed by all of the documents I have to read through and work with. With 382 PDFs in one of my collections alone, it's better for my mental health to scale down and only see 2 or 12 or 26 at a time.

Tags allow me to reorganize documents by topic, actor, or event. A lot of my materials relate to the urban crisis, so anytime I come across a record that discusses responses to riots or racial tension I will tag the document with "urban crisis." I also tag every single document with the year it was written or published, so I can search for everything written in, say, 1968.  

As you can see in the screenshot above, I also love the ability to create linked annotations for every PDF. This keeps my notes together with my documents, and means I don't have to dig through an 80-page .doc file of archival notes every time I need to remember if the "Rabbinical Assembly Resolutions Regarding JCCs" were interesting or important. It's amazing how quickly you forget information... I often have to look back at notes I wrote the day before because I can no longer recall what I read. In writing a dissertation you take in such a large volume of information that inevitably you end up mentally dumping most of it. That's why your notes have to be excellent!

Finally, I really like that I can put little labels--colored dots, in this case--after the name of each document. If I see a green dot, it means I'm done taking notes on that one! Red is a bummer, though. It means go back and re-do. Luckily I have more greens than reds right now. 

Overall, I highly recommend DEVONthink Pro Office. I continue to find new ways to use the application in order to make my workflow more efficient. It's not the most intuitive software I have ever used, but it's not the least either. Mostly, I just cannot imagine tackling a project of this size without the organizing and searching capabilities of specialized database software, and I'm regularly impressed with how adept DEVONthink is at leading me to exactly that thing I'm looking for.

Step 2

After what feels like creating a million new PDFs, it's important to double check your notes from each collection you viewed in the archive. Make sure you have a file or photocopy for each document that you recorded photographing or copying in your notes. It's better to realize that something is missing right after your research trip, because with fresh memory you might recall if your notes are in error. If this does not seem to be the case, I recommend checking the documents before and after the missing one--sometimes photos seem to be part of the same set rather than two separate items and so you accidentally stick them together in one PDF. 

Re-reading archival notes right after a research trip is akin to having to edit a paper immediately after writing it. It's utter torture and requires superhuman willpower to slowly move your eyes from line to line. It is, however, the best way to get an A (at least for effort).