- Developing a Research Question
- Types of Sources
- Finding Resources
- Evaluating Resources
- Hands-on Research
- Organizing your Research
- Printing and Presentation
Developing a Research Question
“To ask the right question is already half the solution of a problem” – Carl Jung
Before you begin a serious research project, it is helpful to define what your research question is. It is OK for this question to evolve and develop as your research progresses, but some reasonable boundaries are important so that your research stays focused. It should be centered around a specific question you have or item you would like to explore. For example, researching “the Vikings” is a very broad subject that you are unlikely to do justice to. You may want to page through a few general books on the Vikings and think about what your goals are in order to narrow your question down to something manageable. Perhaps you need a belt pouch and you would like to be able to make it yourself, but you don’t have access to (or perhaps don’t have interest in) casting materials. Medieval Scandinavian belt pouches that do not have metal fittings is probably a reasonable research question.
Don’t stray too far to the other end of the spectrum with your initial question, though – unless you are already aware of a specific artifact, it can be frustrating to make your question so focused that you are unable to find any information about it. Medieval belt pouches from Svalbard that do not have metal fittings may be too focused. Such a pouch may exist, and if you are really interested in that time and place and project, it is worth trying, but understand that if initial searches are fruitless, you may need to widen your research question.
The other factor that should influence your choice of research question is the ultimate purpose of the research. If you are simply doing research to recreate an item and to provide the documentation for the project, then your research can remain simply factual. You are looking for information like:
- what was the item was made out of?
- what techniques and tools were used to make it?
- were there different variations of the same object?
- who would have used it?
- what was it used for?
- what contexts it has been found in?
However, if your intent is to produce a research paper rather than just documentation, your research should be focused on answering some question or testing a hypothesis. For example: What was the distribution of lyre-shaped purses in Sweden from 700-1100CE? How did it change over that time? Why did those changes occur?
Lastly, consider your most precious resources – time and energy. How broad a question will you be able to address given the time you have to devote to it? Should you take into account a looming deadline and consider a more focused topic? (You can always expand the topic later or in a subsequent piece.) It’s often better to do a focused topic very thoroughly than an expansive topic only superficially.
Once you have your preliminary question, its time to start thinking about where you should get your information.
Types of Sources
There are generally three types of sources…
Primary sources: sources that are directly associated with the historical event and have not been interpreted in any way (Note: in many cases, translations of a primary document can be considered interpretation, making the translated text a secondary source.)
- Records kept at or near the time of the event, like annals, local histories, parish records, charters, letters and diaries.
- Works of art, both visual and literary. However, these should be used with caution, since works of art are not always valid primary sources! If the artist was using artistic license, figures of speech, or other non-literal representations, the objects and situations depicted may not be real or representative of the period you are studying.
- Extant artifacts including, but not limited to, clothing, home goods, structures, books, etc. Images and details of these items can be found in virtual museum collections, museum catalogs, and even auction catalogs. Again, use caution when the use or construction of an object is not certain!
Secondary sources: a resource that in some way analyzes, compiles, or interprets primary sources.
- Books, dissertations, or web pages written about a subject
Tertiary sources: resources that compile and condense information from multiple sources.
- Encyclopedias, dictionaries, tables, timelines, etc.
Your first research challenge is to find the sources you want to evaluate. Here are some suggestions:
Your Local Library: Books, Journals, and the Librarian
- It sounds old school, but often when doing research, the librarian is your best friend! Most librarians are more than happy to assist you in finding information and obtaining books from other libraries, if necessary.
- Types of libraries: libraries are not all the same. Your local library will likely have general information on most SCA-related topics, but if your topic is very obscure or specific, you may need to ask the librarian how to obtain materials through inter-library loan. If you live near a major college or university, it is often possible to borrow books from their collections, which often will include more academic books and journals than those generally available at the local public library.
- Look for your specific topic in the subject search, then check related words.
- If you know the name of an expert in the field, try searching by author
- Don’t forget the journals! Many history societies publish a journal where new research is published. Also, in areas where scholarship is very sparse, a researcher may be able to get an article printed when there is not sufficient interest for an entire book. Check the journals’ index edition or online index for the citations of articles relevant to your topic.
- Use what you already have. Most books and web pages that are good resources have close citations and a bibliography. As you are reading the source, any time you find something interesting or relevant, make note of any footnotes in that section that point to additional sources. Skim through the bibliography and identify other books that might be useful to your research.
- Do some shelf-reading. Once you have identified one or two books that are of interest, get those books off the shelf and then look at the books immediately around them. Since books are groups by subject matter, then nearby books are often also relevant. Some online “card catalogs” for major libraries even allow you to “shelf-read” electronically.
The internet can be a tricky place for serious research and any information you find should be carefully scrutinized. However, nothing beats a quick internet search to get started identifying resources.
- Search for your topic, being as specific as possible. Try general search engines like Google Scholar as well as specific ones like the Labyrinth
- Review some of the more reputable-looking web pages to obtain some preliminary information. Then look at their bibliographies and references (the good sites will have them) and obtain those books from your local library.
- Look for organizations that are related to your topic, like professional history organizations, other living history groups, programs of study at universities, etc.
More and more journals are offering at least some of their issues online. See if the primary journals in your field are available online.
- Look for email lists that discuss your topic and the web pages of people who are experts in the field.
- The internet can also be a great resource for obtaining hard to find books. Try resources like powells.com, alibris.com, dealoz.com and even eBay.
Museums also often have some part of their collection available online or they may be willing to give you information about their holdings. Often the online collections include items that are not currently on display. Many museum online collections include excellent photos and invaluable bibliographical information as well as information about he object’s size, materials, and known history. The Met and the British Museum are stellar examples of museums with extensive online collections and excellent inventory records.
If the information you are looking for is not present, consider emailing the appropriate department of the museum to inquire. However, be prudent when inquiring with a major museum. Curators may not be interested in answering a broad beginner’s question, but specific questions about particular items may be enthusiastically answered. For example, don’t email the British museum asking “Can you tell me about Sutton Hoo?” but you could ask them “The Sutton Hoo shield rivets are listed as being a ‘copper alloy’ but no specific metal composition is listed. I am interested in whether the metallurgical reports on these fittings have been published or are otherwise available.” Depending on the museum, be prepared to have a significant delay before a response is made or not to receive a response at all. However, most museums will at least respond within two weeks to let you know whether they will be able to answer your question or not.
Table of Contents (TOC)
- Is there a TOC?
- Does the TOC cover the topic(s) you are interested in?
- How much of the book is devoted to your topic(s)?
- Is the text clearly written?
- Does the author support statements with examples, citations, or careful reasoning?
- How does the author discuss other authors/theories/evidence?
- Does the author use overly colloquial language or lots of extraneous punctuation!!?!!?!!
- Are there illustrations pertaining to your topic(s)?
- Are illustrations clearly labeled? Referenced? Is a scale provided?
Footnotes, endnotes, and bibliography
- Does the author provide support for their ideas?
- Are there several different sources cited? Are these other sources well respected?
- Has the author included information from the “gold standard” sources for your topic? If not, why were they omitted?
- How many times does the author cite themselves?
- How easy is it to find information within the book?
- How many times is your topic referenced?
- How specific is the index?
- Is there a glossary? How basic are the terms that are defined?
- What are the author’s credentials? Is the author affiliated with a university or professional organization that relates to the topic?
- Are the ideas in the book contemporary, or are they outdated?
- Is the book or journal put out by a well-respected publisher? What other books on the subject has that publisher printed?
Evaluating a Resource – Web pages
Text, Illustrations, Footnotes, endnotes, and bibliography – see above
- How useful are the links? Do most or all of the links work?
- Does the web page link to other reputable resources? Do other good pages link back to this page?
- Are there links to the references cited?
- When was the last time the website was updated?
- Is the site well written and well organized?
- What are the site owner’s credentials? Are they affiliated with a university or organization that relates to the topic?
Evaluating a Resource – Other
Not all sources are written and the evaluation of other sources can require you to think carefully about the object. Some questions that might be pertinent (depending on the object in question):
- Why do you think it is a good source?
- Do other people who are knowledgeable in the field consider it a good source?
- Is the following information known:
- Where and when it was made (& supporting information)
- Where and when it was found or its history of ownership
- What sort of context it was found in (especially important for archaeological finds. For example, was it a chance find or part of an organized dig? Is it from an intact or disturbed site? Where in the site/grave was it found? What other items were found nearby?)
- The object’s exact dimensions, component materials, distinguishing characteristics
- If there is any question about the above or similar questions – what else could the object be? What other explanations are there for the object?
While doing hands-on research can be difficult or impossible, depending on your topic, it is worth considering.
Many museums are happy to help you find information about their holdings and some will even allow you direct access to objects in their holdings. Not everyone can travel abroad, but artifacts from many cultures are available in museums across the US as well as in their native countries.
- Find out if anything from your period of interest is held at a museum that is accessible to you. Visit the museum and see the pieces firsthand.
- If you would like to get a better view of an object or if would like to look at items not currently on display, here are a few hints:
- Contact the curator of the department in advance, ideally at least one month before your planned visit, to ask for an appointment.
- Explain why you are interested in the objects you are requesting to see and why the currently available information does not meet your needs.
- Ask about what materials will be allowed in the viewing room. It is common that pens, markers, food, and drink are forbidden. Sometimes photography is not allowed.
- Dress neatly when you arrive for your appointment and be prompt.
- Bring a pair of cotton gloves (available from your local pharmacy).
- Cotton gloves are no longer used by all institutions, but it is better to be prepared and shows that you are a serious and prepared researcher.
- Follow all their instructions regarding the appropriate handling of materials exactly.
- Bring items that will allow you to take good notes about the pieces, if allowed
- notebook and pencil for taking notes
- camera and macro lenses (even relatively cheap macro lenses that clip onto your cell phone can capture some incredible details)
- a ruler or scale marked in your measurements of choice
- a color chart, if you are looking at colored items
- precise measuring tools if you are looking at small items – a ruler with millimeter increments or a set of digital calipers, if allowed.
- printouts of pictures of the item, if they are available, for making notes on or recording measurements on
- colored pencils can be helpful for making notes that will be clearer to you when you review your notes.
- Bring a list of questions about the object that you would like to observe or ask the curator about. If you will be examining multiple items, a pre-printed template of information to record about each item can help you remember to collect all the data you need on all of the items.
- Thank the curator(s) and send a physical, mailed thank you card afterwards (an email is not sufficient).
- If items are not available for an individual viewing, they are not easily photographed, or you are not allowed to photograph them, you may be able to order professional photographs of the objects from the museum for a fee.
Many sites from the SCA period are still intact or at least partially extant and are often able to be visited. There’s nothing quite like standing in a location that your persona may have been familiar with, especially if the site has been well preserved.
If you cannot physically visit, see if there is an online visitors’ guide or web pages done by other visitors.
If you ARE able to visit:
- Think about the places that are of greatest importance to your period and learn as much as you can about them before you visit.
- Make lists of specific things you would like to observe at each site.
- Bring maps, directions, and a compass, if necessary.
- Some countries (including Britain) publish remarkably detailed maps that show the exact location of items of interest, down to single standing stones.
- GPS can be very helpful for items that are difficult to locate in a rural landscape.
- Bring a notebook and pen or pencil as well as a camera to record details about the site.
- If you are interested in a site that is on private property, remember to ask the landowners for permission before visiting, if at all possible, or ask when you arrive if you cannot make contact in advance. Be polite and explain specifically what you are interested in seeing.
- In rural areas, be aware of dangerous local flora and fauna as well as local hunting seasons and trespassing law!
Organizing Your Research
While research can initially seem boring and daunting, you will be surprised how quickly it becomes a fascinating hunt for information. You will also find that fairly quickly you remember that you read something, but not WHERE you read it. Therefore, it is important to develop some good research habits right off the bat.
- Make your bibliography as you go along. Yes, getting all your references in the correct format is a pain, annoying, and boring. I feel you. But if you do it for each source as you are first examining it, you will both have the source on hand to collect all the information you need and by doing only a little at a time, you avoid the time-sucking, mind-numbing drudgery of constructing the bibliography right before the documentation is due. See the section on citations for some guidelines of how to construct your bibliographical reference. Protip! Construct the citation how it will have to appear in the bibliography AND how it will appear in in-text or footnoted citations all at once.
- Take notes! Even some basic thoughts and comments about the source will help you jog your memory later. Remember to write down the page numbers of important ideas and figures. If you are doing research on the internet, record the URL and the date you accessed it. Protip! We tell kids that things on the internet are forever, but frustratingly, sometimes with good sources, that is a LIE. (Apparently only the bad stuff is immortal!) Many sites will be able to be resurrected using the Wayback Machine or other web archives, but don’t necessarily count on it. Consider saving a copy of the webpage, printing it off, or at least copying-and-pasting the important parts into a document so you are protected in case your amazing source suddenly vanishes. Consider also recording the name and email of the site author, if available, so you have a chance of finding them (and their beautiful information) again if the website moves.
- Have a method of organizing your notes. Having notes doesn’t do you any good if you can’t access them! There are all sorts of fancy methods of organizing your notes, like Zotero, on online management service that lets you keep citations, notes, and links in a central place. This make generating a bibliography or searching for that thing you sort of remember much easier. However, you don’t need to learn a new program if you don’t want to – your system can be as low-tech as you want it to be – if notecards work for you, do it! I prefer a folder with Word documents, each named with the source title, author, and year, but you should experiment and find a system that makes sense to you and that you will actually USE.
- Keep a list of additional sources to look at. As you are reading, you will run across references to other interesting sources. Do not assume you will remember them later, because you won’t! Have an ongoing list of additional sources to investigate. This can also be particularly useful if that fascinating tidbit is only sort of related to your current topic, but not really. Add it to your list to investigate later so you don’t get derailed.
- Consider making an annotated bibliography. In addition to your extensive notes on a source, it can be helpful to collect all the sources on a topic and a short summary of the information they contain. This allows you to skim a topic and find the source you are looking for, rather than having to open up multiple files/look at multiple cards to try to remember that oh-so-important tidbit you are trying to remember. An example of my annotated bibliography on the Birka Posaments is here.
As you find more and more information, you may find that your project seems to be ever-expanding – something that is often referred to as “scope-creep”. If you find this to be happening, it is good to reevaluate your research question. If you were initially doing research to document a specific type of spindle whorl, but now you have information on the types of whorls, spindles, and wools used throughout several centuries in Scandinavia, you have essentially three options: 1) when you get to writing, cull your information back to just address your initial, focused question (you can always use the additional information to build on those concepts for future projects or competitions), 2) split the information into discreet groups and consider separate projects for each group, or 3) go for the deep dive and write a comprehensive research paper – your project has become about more than that single whorl and more about how it changed and developed over time. Choose your method of dealing with the information carefully, as it will affect how you go about completing your project.
First of all, it should go without saying, but SAVE YOUR WORK. Save often. Save different versions (with dates!) in case a file gets corrupted. Email copies of drafts to yourself. Save copies in the cloud or on a removable drive. Do whatever works for you, but the longer and more elaborate the paper, the more it behooves you to be paranoid and build in additional safeguards. There’s nothing worse than losing a beautiful paper just shy of the deadline.
Writing documentation is different than writing a research paper. If you are writing documentation for an A&S entry, your purpose is to provide the important details about that piece, its historical examples, how you made it, and what you learned. You want to provide information in a concise, accessible manner for your judges and interested passers-by. For that, refer to the writing documentation tutorial that is a separate module.
If you are writing a research paper, your purpose is to delve into the matter at hand, to make an argument or present new information about that subject, and then to support your argument or your interpretation of the materials. This is not necessarily a dissertation-length paper, but a document where the purpose is more about ideas than about discussing how you made a thing.
Some things to consider when writing a research paper – not all of which will always apply, but good things to consider as you write:
- What is your main argument?
- Your trusty thesis statement…
- What has already been said about the topic?
- Discuss what has been published, particularly the “gold standard” references in the subject, but also newer information
- What is the new information you are providing?
- If you don’t have any new information or ideas, you need to revisit the argument you are making in the paper
- What is the source of and evidence for that information?
- Is the information based on experimental archaeology? On review and compilation of information in previous published works? On observations of items from digs and museums (either in person or online)?
- What evidence do you have that supports your argument or conclusions?
- Point to specific examples. Be explicit.
- What images, tables, or graphs will make your argument more clear?
- Many people think visually! Arrange data into charts, provide relevant maps, and otherwise present the information graphically so people can “see” it all at once.
- Pretty pictures should not overwhelm your text, but choose clear examples of things you are discussing to include in your paper, when possible. This will make the argument clearer to the reader, particularly if they are not already familiar with the topic.
- Include clear and relevant captions and scales on all images and figures. If the image is not your own, make sure it is properly cited.
- How do your conclusions agree with or disagree with the previously published information on the topic?
- Compare and contrast to some of the published sources, especially “gold standard” sources and other publications closely paralleling your work
- Provide explanations for anywhere your argument differs significantly from the current literature
- It is OK to disagree with the “experts,” but you must provide well thought-out reasoning when doing so.
- Are there any other researchers who DO agree with you? What arguments do they make against the status quo?
- What are the weak points in your argument?
- How could they be addressed?
- Will you be able to address them in the future? If yes, why not now? If no, why not?
- Who cares?
- Why is this important and who will be interested/impacted by this information?
- What next?
- What are the implications of your paper for the study of the topic?
Because research papers are even more about ideas than documentation is, make sure you are careful to cite all the information you use very closely. This allows your reader to check your sources and to follow up on any ideas they might have further questions about.
If your purpose in writing a research paper is either as an entry in a competition or as a submission for a class or symposium, remember that you must check the rules and expectations for that forum. Make sure you are addressing the topics and requirements for the specific forum in which you plan to use the paper!
An oft-overlooked portion of the process is the editing phase, however, this piece can be critical to how your paper is received. At the very least, take some basic steps to review your paper:
- Double-check the requirements for your paper – page length, font, font size, borders, spacing, citation style, can/must your name and other demographic information be displayed?
- Spell-check – for the love of all that’s holy, spell check your paper!
- Read it aloud to yourself – you will be shocked at the crazy things your eyes will skim over when you are silently reading to yourself!
- Print it out and read it – it’s amazing what else you will catch when it is on paper! This is also a useful check to make sure your paper will print as you expect it to! Check margins, spaces between paragraphs, page breaks, captions, etc.
- Have a friend with no or only passing knowledge of the topic review it – ask them to check for confusing passages, unclear thoughts, spelling, grammar, etc.
- Review your citations – is there anything you should have cites? Any idea that could use more support?
- Sleep on it and re-read it in the morning.
- Consider coming up with a snappy title to drive interest in your work, particularly if it is being presented at a symposium, as a class, or even just to have a fun title on your printed copy on display.
Printing and Presentation
Don’t let printing your document at the last minute lead to poorer presentation of the material! While it SHOULD be the content that matters, people DO judge a book by its cover, so spend some time thinking about how best to print and present your paper. Some suggestions about presenting your materials, tools, and finished product for A&S competitions is here, but think about your paper too!
- If you can, print the paper on heavyweight paper or at least standard weight paper – avoid economy or typewriter paper. The heavier paper feels better in the hand and your text will read more nicely. Also avoid “parchment” or other colored or patterned papers that will distract from your message. Clean, bright white paper is the way to go!
- Print only on one side of the paper to prevent bleed-through of text or images. Again, this avoids visual clutter and helps your reader more easily read your paper.
- Check to make sure all the graphs and tables are legible – what looks fine of the screen may not print as clear as you would like it.
- If you are using detailed photographs, print at a high resolution/high quality so that detail is preserved. If you cannot get sufficient detail from your printer, consider having images printed as photographs and either pasting them in or providing them as an auxiliary album.
- If you want to have a copy out for passers-by to leaf through, consider using page protectors and a three ring binder or binding a copy with a report cover. (Avoid just leaving out a copy stapled in the corner – this is awkward to page through and people will not spend as much time perusing the work.) I prefer the three ring binder method because it can be left open at interesting images to draw in interested folks. However, do use the page protectors, don’t just punch holes – this will see a lot fo wear and tear and you don’t want pages ripping out!
- If your paper is going to be judged or otherwise evaluated, make at least one copy available so that the pages are available from the reviewer(s) to mark up as they proceed. (A report cover, a three ring binder with holes punched directly in the paper, or simply a staple in the corner are ideal here.) Provide a colored pen, if possible – the notes and comments you will get will help you clarify your work for future applications of this paper and/or help you learn for entirely new projects.
- Bring a back-up copy of the document, separate from the other copies, just in case a bag is forgotten or some evil befalls the original set.
- If your paper is being presented in a public forum, consider writing up a half page or one page summary of the paper that includes your contact information. Print multiple copies of the summary and make them available for interested passers-by to be able to contact you later. At the very least, have business cards available.
Relax and enjoy the fruits of your labors! Whatever purpose you are writing for and at whatever level, increasing your knowledge about a topic is valuable in of itself. Your research paper now lets you SHARE that knowledge with others and to spread the nerdery and that is a truly wondrous and beautiful thing!
Additional Resource For Doing Research:
Learning Historical Research – a wonderful and thoughtful guide to doing original research. Aimed at college students and those doing professional research, but excellent if you really want to get your nerd on.