Thursday, November 11, 2010

The brave new world of research

This morning I came across a hand-written, nearly illegible letter from my great-uncle Carleton. In his cramped, wobbly hand (he was 92 at the time), he wrote about his grandmother's wedding. He remembered her stories about this event, which took place on the family's front porch in Randolph, VT, in 1861. Uncle Carleton recited the guest list. He also told me about his grandfather, who mustered out with the First Vermont Division soon after the wedding, broke his kneecap, and ended up carrying the wounded on stretchers for the rest of the war. Carleton's letter, written in 1983, connected me to an event from 125 years earlier. His personality bristles on the page and brings back his querulous voice.

As someone who has spent many hours reading old letters, diaries, and journals, I waxed nostalgic--briefly--about the demise of hand-written archival material. I thought about the letters of Susan LaFlesche, the first American Indian woman doctor. Her sloping handwriting described the trials of her medical training; her pride at standing firm during surgery while a male student fainted. I remembered a diary I read at our local historical society, written by a 12 year old Vermont farm boy, whose syntax and vocabulary helped me find the voice of an 18th century narrator. What would be lost if people no longer put pen to paper?

And then, a friend mentioned that she has never deleted over 10,000 received e-mails. I thought about Wiki-leaks, releasing a tsunami of e-mails about our two wars; about kids who send thousands of text messages per month; about voice messages piled up on my own cell phone--and my heart quailed. Is this a historian's dream, or nightmare? Will we go crazy, sorting through an avalanche of e-mail posts, texts, phone conversations--and yes, blogs like this one--in search of the telling fact or detail? Is this the true meaning of "too much information?"

On the other hand, there are advantages to this brave new world. My current novel takes place in 2004 (already ancient history to some readers). I was thrilled when my friend Jack Burrage sent me to a website with the complete record of every Red Sox game from that fabulous year. In one quick e-mail, he saved me hours of digging. So maybe this isn't an either/or situation--but it does leave me muddled.


  1. That's so funny about your Red Sox experience. I've been using the internet to look up dates of every F3-F5 tornado that hit within a 100 mile radius from 1950 until 1984. Then I plan to go to the library and look up newspaper articles about each tornado. Kind of like mixing the new with the old.

    I find that often on-line research gets repetitive very quickly. Often I research enough to get a pretty good idea of what's going on, then the rest of the time it's skimming a lot of stuff to find 1) some new information that sheds some light on the matter or 2) information that's particuarly specific and telling.

    I miss the old diaries and letters though. I like reading stuff that my great-grandparents have written -- their handwriting and the way they fill the page gives me more of a clue about what they were like. And old writings is an artifact, you know? Something they made with their own hands. That's the coolest thing.

  2. I found a pdf online, free, of a 1623 book I needed for my thesis. I'd have loved to hold the book in my hands, but one Google search saved me a trip to London to see the original.

  3. I find Internet research to be valuable to give me a broad picture and help me identify possible sources. E.g., this morning in just a few clicks, I was able to access an audiofile of a speech by MLK radio broadcast on radio in India when he visited there in 1959.

    But when you get to old documents, there's nothing like the real thing--seeing it, smelling it, holding it in gloved hands if you get so lucky!

    So the question is, what "real" things will our generation leave for researchers to come? Is anything we create going to be "real" in that tangible, sensory way?

  4. Ms. Krishnaswami, that's a good question. President Truman wrote on anything he could get his hands on during his political career, and as a result, you can find like a zillion linear feet of documents at the Truman Library, and it's awesome stuff. But what about today's authors? How would the Kerlan file those emails the author wrote to her editor, fans, and writing buddies? It's more accessible -- but it's just not as much fun.