I have been researching Lincoln Cemetery, the old African American Civil War Veterans burial grounds, and would suggest these three lessons:
1. History Exists Outside the Scholarly Bubble – So often in historical research, we analyze how other historians have researched and published their findings on our topics. Thus, we look for them in libraries, databases, and honors theses. However, starting this project, I quickly learned that my topic had a number of local experts who have never published any writings and might not even consider themselves historians. And once I started contacting one local expert, I was connected to a web of others who could help me piece together my research. So don’t assume that if a historian hasn’t written about your topic that there aren’t dozens of enthusiastic locals with oral histories, family documents or private research just awaiting to be tapped into!
2. Visit Your Site – While this is not always possible for every topic, I personally think it is very important to consider. Yea, likely the place you are researching may have been destroyed or eroded, and you may only get a basic idea of where the site is on a street. But after I visited my site, the eroded and former Lincoln Cemetery, I would always have that image in my head for the rest of my research. And by then looking at historical documents, it allowed me to actually take this modern day site and start imagining what it may have been like 150 years ago. Otherwise, it’s just a research topic or a piece of paper.
3. Write Down Every Possible Lead – Throughout your research, you will find you sometimes only have one possible lead to research, and then all of a sudden you have dozens that you cannot possibly fully address. So write them all down. Every time I saw a person’s name who might have information on Lincoln Cemetery, a different archive or source that one of my sources recommended, or a way I could expand my research, I would write it down. In the future, I could hopefully chase down all these leads too, but this allowed me to follow one lead without worrying about what I was missing.