…a scrap of advice…

Two of the war memorials I am researching started off on impulse with the names scribbled down on scraps of paper, a practice my students would tell you that I frequently advise against.

Scraps of paper get lost.  By the time they turn up again, if they turn up again, you’ll have spent time searching for them and possibly having to reconstitute their contents.  You may even have to retrace your footsteps and do the research all over again.

I  use a laptop to enter, save and backup data, whenever that’s feasible.  Where archives permit photography, I use a camera and transcribe later.

Planning I tend to prefer to commit by hand to paper.   My solution to the problem of lost notes, has been to invest in a large supply of Muji’s A4 notebooks.  Muji, because they sell, for £1.95 a slim A4 sized-notebook—slim is important since it adds minimal weight to whatever else I have to carry about with me.  The cover is plain charcoal grey, (in case you have a branch of Muji handy).  Each notebook has 30 leaves to it. You should be able to find something similar locally.

I used to favour notebooks that fitted easily into a bag, but it’s more useful to have the extra writing area.  The A4 sheet is the best fit for the frame, whether I’m photocopying or printing.

In my research notebooks, each spread has its own function.  When I say ‘spread’, I mean it in its publishing sense, i.e. two facing pages.

On  the left hand page of each ‘spread’ I write the information I already have, and the specific questions that need answering.

I use the right-hand page of each spread, to write the information I subsequently find—basically that means nothing gets written on the right-hand page until I’m in the archive or library, engaged on that research. I do my best to position the search findings including any negative results, opposite the question it’s answering, though this is more difficult when research higher up the page has been particularly fruitful.

Having the details of the quest, the potential information source and the resulting information together, in the same notebook, means I know exactly where I will find that information.  I often  revisit the notebooks, even after I’ve transferred the information elsewhere.

When I first adopted this system, I allocated a spread to each of the archives or libraries that I visit regularly.  I would note down on the left hand side of my National Archives’ spread, the series, title and references for the documents I expected to view.  When the thought came, “Ah, I might find that at the National Archives, next time I’m there!” I went straight to the National Archives’ spread, and added that research task to the list of those already there.  Where possible, I used an online catalogue to note the reference and title of the information source that might be relevant.  Once I had enough meat for a feast, it was time to find a slot for the pilgrimage.  Similarly, other national, regional or local archives had their own spreads.

I still use this method, the only difference being that nowadays I might have a whole notebook dedicated to each repository, with separate spreads for each series of records.  When I have a large commission for a client, I tend to allocate an entire notebook to that research, with a separate spread being used for each resource type e.g. an archive, a library, an interview.

It’s useful to catch ‘questions’ that occur to you when you’re researching.  Too often, one is so engrossed in what one is finding and where it is leading, that any fleeting “I wonder whether…?” questions, that flit in and interrupt the flow, are swiftly dismissed.  Nobody wants a diversion when the destination is clear.

That diversion, however, could hold significant information.  So, if you always keep your notebook handy, a quick scribble on a left hand page preserves that question until you have time to follow it up. I used to keep a Post-It pad handy for that, but now I tend to jot those fleeting thoughts down on the last page of the notebook, transferring them later to the appropriate page for the search I’d need to make.

The notebook system facilitates your passage through an archive’s entry and exit points.  While separate sheets of paper will be paged through by the security staff, a quick riffle of the notebook with the thumb, and you’re clear.

Sometimes you come across a piece of information, when you weren’t expecting it, and a scrap of paper, such as a till receipt is all you can find when you empty your pockets.   Tough call, that.

If, however, you have the luxury of a ‘clean sheet’ (whether it’s paper or a paper napkin) write on only one side of it.  That way you can eventually paste it into your working book, even if you have to do something nerdy like writing on your hand to remind you.


War Memorial Research (1): Perils and pitfalls

I was asked, last week, to talk about the ‘perils and pitfalls’ of War Memorial research, but instead, I’ll be posting a few tips in the next few days, about tackling the task in ways that will help avoid potential pitfalls.

But just to get the perils out of the way, the biggest one is that you could get hooked.

Your role, in this, hinges on curiosity.  Can you curb yours?  (Trick question: there’s no ‘correct’ answer.)

Are you a  YES? 
If you have an A in curiosity suppression, then this could be an ideal project for you.  It’s not going to impinge too much on your time, especially if you choose a modest memorial—a couple of dozen names, max.  Don’t let yourself be coaxed into taking on a big project.  You should be able to put together a couple of sentences for those names on your list that you are able to locate in the online database of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.   That’s probably enough information for most people anyway.

The risk is that you might not find the whole business engaging which could well bury the chance of some stories ever surfacing.   Apart from people who were decorated for gallantry, or whose fame  is already in the public domain, most of them aren’t, without some extra ‘fishing’, going to generate more than a few lines.   The only stories you have a chance of finding without leaving the house, are those whose exploits are already online.  The ‘hard’ cases mean digging in archives and running the risk of acquiring an addiction to the romance of viewing documents in folders that were last handled more than 90 years ago.  You could argue that worthy people shuffle off all the time, barely noticed, and rapidly forgotten, unless there is someone left to remember and to grieve.  (At least, nowadays, most lives are better recorded, and records are accessible digitally.  These days, how often do you enter the name of a living person  in a search engine without generating at least one result?)  For some names on a war memorial, you will find nothing, not even a military record, that links that name to a specific individual.

Can you tell where this is going yet?

Are you a NO?
If your curiosity is curb-resistant, indeed rather inclined to propel itself, then the risk is that your research could take a lot of time, but the people behind the lists of names will come alive for you.  You can expect to feel a few twinges.  You may even shed a tear. Another researcher wrote to me that she seemed to be ‘blubbing all the time’.  Developing a greater sense of the enormity of the loss felt by your community, can be somewhat disturbing.

Sometimes the circumstances in which a life was lost, will feed a curiosity that you can’t shake off, so you’ll try to learn more about the military manoeuvres at the time.

If it takes you there, watch your back.  I’ve just weighed Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War and it came in at 1.25 kg.  Peter Hart’s Gallipoli must come pretty close.  Seriously, think heavyweight, as you eagerly reach for a book.  Take your battles home from the library, one kilogram at a time .

You may well never trace a photograph or find a living relative for any of those commemorated on your memorial.  Instead, at least for you, walking to the shops won’t be the same, as even if you never trace a photo or find a living relative, you’ll know where they lived, played and laboured.  It may seem pretty pointless, that a school or a street or a house can be the sole surviving relic, but at least there’s someone around to recognise its significance, once, to someone. You might be the only person on the planet able to make that connection.

If those names come alive for you, a little of that will rub off on others—maybe more than a little, if you create a tangible record.

Can you tell where this is going yet?

Whether you’re a YES or a NO, you have an opportunity to rescue quite a few people from oblivion.  As for me, I’m a ‘NO’, my curiosity is insatiable—teamed with the elephant’s child on that.



Haunting tweets on the First Day of the Somme

This morning Twitter’s been busy and I’ve picked out a few highlights amongst the tweets I’ve received.

Via a retweet from Peter Doyle, I came across Professor Frank McDonough’s recommendation (@FXMC1957) of the 1976 BBC documentary, The Battle of the Somme.

Most evocative image to reach me, so far,  was Paul Reed’s Poppies on the Somme, (@sommecourt) with its solitary surviving poppy.

I found the selection of words from the actual participants in a few tweets from  @GreatWarRugby moving.  These stood out for me:

“an old film that flickered violently…everybody in a desperate hurry…the air full of black rain”

“…small bodies of men simply disappeared…”

“I remember feeling there was not enough air to breathe…”

“…some of them stopped and fell down slowly…”

To think that this was the day which was reported in an evening dispatch thus: “The day went well for England and France”.