…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.


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