Kenna Lang Archer, a veteran researcher at The Texas Collection, is our guest blogger for this series, “A User’s Guide to The Texas Collection.” Drawing on her research on the Brazos River, Dr. Archer offered advice on identifying helpful (but not obvious) resources and making use of special collections staffers in her last post. In this installment, she discusses some of the perils of primary resource research: sources that contradict your thesis and the challenges of assessing authenticity in materials.
Unfortunately, archival research does not always yield information that one might call “helpful.” To research in archives is to invite uncertainty into your academic life. Yes, I have located sources that pulled everything together, but I have also found sources that contradicted all I expected to find. What is the proper response to a source that seemingly undermines your work? There is no one answer, but my advice would be to remember that there is promise in confusion.
Roughly halfway through my dissertation research, I found a source that seemed to weaken my argument in a serious way. It was nothing short of an intellectual catastrophe. I erupted in genuine (if, thankfully, short-lived) tears and stopped work early that day. That evening, I wrote up a brief outline for my project and began to ask difficult questions about the new material—what did it really say, how might it broaden my study, did it undercut the entirety of my thesis or portions of it, could I simply fine-tune my ideas? It took me awhile to incorporate these answers into my outline and then to adjust my writing, but as I struggled through the muddle that once was my project, it became easier to envision the ways in which new ideas could fit together. The end result: a stronger project!
Unfortunately, there have also been times when I couldn’t work out the contradictions that resulted from new information—I’ve discarded projects and entirely reworked projects. Whatever the ultimate outcome, “defiant” sources are beneficial—they help to refine research projects into something both more intriguing and authentic.
That being said, whether or not sources prove to be helpful, researchers must take the time to assess their authenticity. Letters, books, pamphlets—they’ve all been written by individuals with preconceptions and opinions. Photographs and paintings can be staged or emotionally skewed as well. In other words, every source is created in a context that shapes its meaning and its value.
Was a tract written to attract visitors to Texas? It probably emphasized the good and downplayed the bad about life in this state. Was a letter written in 1917? Ongoing war in Europe surely colored the text, and the contextual biases might have shifted from one month to the next.
It is imperative that researchers understand these nuances. So how do you account for the possibility of hyperbole, the use of incorrect figures, the fever of patriotism? When working with a primary source, I try to anticipate what biases might exist by considering the who, what, where, when, and why of its creation. For example, I might ask where this information originated and whether it was corroborated only by people from the same family or city. If possible, I also account for subjectivity by increasing the number of sources that I review and, thereby, increasing the validity of statistics, stories, and so forth.
Whether you have one crucial source or twenty adequate sources, take the time to judge the authenticity of your information…and, most difficult of all, have the courage to set aside a source, however valuable, whose information cannot be trusted. It is far more important to work in confidence knowing that you have prioritized accuracy than to squeeze a questionable source into an existing argument.
Stay tuned for the September entry (and final post) in this series.
Archer is an instructor in the history department at Angelo State University. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Baylor and then her doctorate at Texas Tech University. You can learn more about her research on her website, www. kennalangarcher.com.