Given that the purpose of the methods classes in our History Department is to develop students as researchers, it is no surprise that I have learned a great deal in this area as a result of 304 and 204. That said, particularly with this most recent project, there are some things that (even if taught in class) did not register fully until I discovered them myself. As a result, if this post is to be a legacy for future history students, perhaps this too will go relatively unmarked, though I hope not.
My first lesson learned was probably the importance of being thorough. It’s easy to miss little details, but the little details are often the most interesting parts; the things most likely to differ from source to source and most likely to produce creative, new conclusions at the end of the road. If you only read to find what you’re looking for, you’ll miss what’s there in front of you, and that is a waste of a source.
My second point is something that I’m sure is emphasized by all professors in all classes, but I choose to emphasize it here again for its importance. Creativity is the key to historical research. If all information were found exactly where everyone expected it to be, historians would be out of a job. Find different avenues, use sources and databases and archival approaches that seem unorthodox, and always look for connections between them (ancestry.com was not just useful for our first lab, for instance. I tried using it to track down Bentz family members in Carlisle). Even if it seems tedious and difficult, and even if your first few ideas come up empty, there are always different approaches and always more information to find.
I suppose my last idea branches off from the first two, but it is perhaps the most important. Time management is incredibly important to historical research. With the volume of sources at the disposal of even an underclassman history student at Dickinson, along with the need to be thorough and the importance of being creative in the research at hand, planning carefully is paramount to success.