A User's Guide to the Texas Collection, Part 3, Or, How to Know Enough is Enough

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 resources (including staff) in her first post; in her second, she addressed challenging resources. In this final installment, she offers her tips on determining when the research is DONE.

A Park and River Scene in Waco, Beautiful Waco, Texas
I looked through hundreds of postcards in my research on the Brazos, and while I enjoyed that glimpse into the past, I needed only to expand on a single idea (whose citation already included more than 100 sources!). Not the best use of my time. From the Texas Collection postcard collection.

For the final post in this series, I’d like to address a question that is as challenging as it is important…when is enough, enough? When is it time to step away—trusting that you have read enough letters, seen sufficient photographs, and pored through the right amount of memoirs, and how do you know that you’ve reached that point? It’s entirely possible that I am the last person that should be offering advice on the subject. My friends and colleagues have often chided me for “excessive” research, as have several editors (apparently, one really can cite too many sources in too many footnotes). However, my occasional inability to know that I have gathered the necessary citations means I am actually well placed to offer guidance.

The Texas Cotton Palace promotional envelope, 1894
I tracked down this promotional mail-out after realizing that my discussion on agriculture in nineteenth century Texas was weak; I moved forward with my research knowing that I hadn’t found all that I needed in regard to a particular topic, and it was time well spent. From the Texas Cotton Palace records, box 2, folder 8.

That advice begins with a simple realization: it is possible to spend so much time looking through archival materials that the notes you collect become overwhelming and your work with them, inefficient. A paradox of historical research—people working with primary sources tend to assume that where one source is good, two sources are better, and three sources, best. The problem with this line of thought is two-fold. First, as your notes or copies increase in number, it becomes increasingly difficult to incorporate that information into existing outlines, chapters, etc. After completing my dissertation, I found a stack of Xerox copies more than one foot high that I had never written into my outlines. I missed nothing of import in those copies, but I was fortunate. I could easily have lost valuable information to a crowd of unheeded papers. Second, if you focus exclusively on research, you will never finish the project that prompted that work in the first place. Research alone does not produce finished works. Books, articles, and even blog posts can only be written, edited, and completed by an individual who has found the courage to say, “Yes, this research and my thoughts on it can stand.”

So how do you know when enough is truly enough? Where do you draw the mythical line in the sand? Personally, I use a series of hypothetical scenarios to weigh what I might find in future research against what I know from my current research. Would my ideas still hold if, somewhere, a source existed that said X; if I later found a source that said Y, would I still feel comfortable with my project? If I decide that nothing short of indisputable evidence refuting my argument would cause me doubt, then I leave my research be. If I feel like there is more than one way in which my ideas could be threatened or if I see a glaring omission, then I continue to research until I feel comfortable in my analysis.

Letter to George Barnard from New York, March 22, 1855
Hand-written documents can introduce still more challenges. Although I could read this letter in person, I struggled to read the Xerox copy that I requested and so, ultimately, went back to the materials a second time for a scanned copy. From the Barnard-Lane papers, box 3, folder 13.

Along those lines, I would recommend that anybody making extensive use of primary sources develop an effective organization system for their research. Each researcher must find the method that best fits their timeline and needs, but based on my experiences, I would make the following suggestions for people engaged in archival research:

  1. Copying/photographing every source you find is as risky and ineffective as copying no sources at all: to be buried by too much material is a cruel fate.
  2. Trying to track down a citation after the fact is maddening and a waste of precious time: write down every citation legibly and in the same place as the note itself as you go along.
  3. When making copies, do not assume either that the archivists will write down the citation for you or that they will include everything you need for reference: be responsible for assuring the validity and the location of your sources.
  4. Trusting too much in technology will eventually lead to a headache: be prepared to take notes the old fashioned way and keep a list of the sources that you have duplicated (as well as their location).

I made a number of “rookie mistakes” when I began working in the archives; I can even admit that I fell into the same blunders several times. Fortunately for my self-worth (and unfortunately for the rest of the research community), I am not alone in my struggles. I would guess that every researcher has, at one time or another, struggled with the effectiveness of his/her research methods or the decision to walk away from new sources. It’s a learning process, and one that everybody must endure. However, it can be made easier. My hope for anybody reading this series is that his or her experience in primary source research might be a smidge less chaotic, a bit more constructive, as a result of my suggestions.

Onward, archival soldiers…and until next time, good luck!

Missed the first installments? Check them out here.

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.

A User's Guide to the Texas Collection, Part 2, Or, Dealing with Challenging Resources

Baptism in the Brazos River, Waco, undated
Photograph of a baptism in the Brazos River: images like this are astoundingly rare…and so are sources that so clearly “make” a portion of your research!

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.

Canoeing on the river, 1908
Though I knew something about this photograph (it came from a Baylor student scrapbook), I didn’t have a location. Was this the Brazos River? I sure wanted it to be, but ultimately I had no clear evidence one way or another and so I set aside this image as a source.

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.

Flooding at the Washington Avenue Bridge, Waco, circa 1913
The Brazos River flooding, circa 1913: In some cases, it is possible to determine information for sources that is not explicitly given. For example, I can reasonably date this undated photograph by comparing the years of Brazos floods with the construction dates of Brazos River bridges, the advent of technology, and popular styles of dress.

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.

A User's Guide to the Texas Collection, Part 1, Or, How I Survived the Rigors of Research

Kenna Lang Archer recently presented a lecture hosted by The Texas Collection, “The Brazos River and the Baylor Archives: A History of Floods and Droughts, a Story of Resilience and Ideals.” Archer has been coming to The Texas Collection for many years to research the Brazos River and its environmental impact—she even earned one of our Wardlaw Fellowships for Texas Studies.

Kenna Lang Archer
Dr. Kenna Lang Archer, whose March 19 lecture on the Brazos River attracted an audience of about 150 people

So we thought she would be a perfect candidate to share some of what she has learned about special collections research. Archer has a heart for educational outreach and far too much to say to fit into one blog post, so this is the first installment in a three-part series, “A User’s Guide to The Texas Collection.”

I recently completed a study on the Brazos River, and while I loved the topic, it wasn’t always easy to find sources for my research. People living in Waco in 1856 rarely sat down with the explicit goal of writing about water—“Dear Robert. Old Man River is especially murky today…I can think of nothing but mud pies as I stare into its depths (which total 15 feet, 100 yards north of Waco).” Ditto with individuals living in other cities at other periods. Instead, people wrote about matters of immediate importance—crops, kin, wars, etc.

This intellectual inertia is hardly unique to me. Most researchers, at one time or another, have encountered a similar problem. The obvious search words are sometimes not enough, and in those moments, it becomes necessary to follow alternative pathways. Fortunately, in that disorder is potential. I once used the record books of the Waco Bridge Company to determine the supplies used in the Waco Suspension Bridge, which incorporated trees that had been logged locally. These financial records, in other words, told me about the species that populated Cameron Park in the late 1800s, a park that itself sits along the Brazos.

Waco Bridge Company Minute Book, 1886-1889
Excerpt, Waco Bridge Company Minute Book, 1886-1889. After a series of dead ends, it was a painfully real sense of desperation that led me to this resource, but that desperation led to invaluable information. It forced me to consider not the river itself but the context that shaped the river.

Sometimes, the sources simply are not there, but oftentimes, information can be gleaned from the space between ideas. Search Brazos River but also search intellectually adjacent words—agriculture, Cameron Park, cattle. The use of non-traditional sources and peripheral search terms can be time-consuming, but it results in a richer understanding of the subject, making the intellectual effort more than worthwhile.

Along those same lines, if I could offer one piece of advice to individuals engaged in research, it would be this—get to know the employees of the archives/library.

Canoeing on the Brazos River, Waco, Texas
A Day on the River from a 1908 scrapbook. People writing about daily life may not mention the Brazos directly, but they do mention pursuits that circle back to this Old Man River.

A good relationship with archivists, curators, librarians, and coordinators is the surest path to a completed project. Likewise, a bad relationship with these same individuals (or no relationship at all) is a sure way to become mired in more material than you could ever process. That is the dirty secret of historic research—it is impossible to track every lead, tumble down every rabbit hole, follow every hunch. A bittersweet blessing: scholars, with few exceptions, have access to far too many letters, diaries, and photographs to peruse every line of thought. And, yet, projects can hinge on a single piece of evidence. What is an industrious scholar to do?  Engage the experts.

Special collections employees can recommend finding aids, suggest search words, pull off-site material, or even let you know when collections are unavailable due to routine maintenance. Over the last five years, the employees of the Texas Collection made my project possible in a very literal sense. Amie Oliver suggested nineteenth century promotional booklets that did not mention the Brazos but nevertheless provided insight into the movement of immigrants; Geoff Hunt tracked down a panoramic photograph of industrializing Waco that unveiled flood patterns; Tiffany Sowell pulled manuscripts from the turn of the century that exposed urban growth patterns. Archival resources are not limited to pen and ink; get to know the men and women who work in the stacks.

See our staff listing to learn who those folks in the stacks are at The Texas Collection! And stay tuned for the August entry 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.