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For what it’s worth….

There are five things I’ve learned over the past several months with regard to writing a biography on Emmett:

  1. Question Authority

Librarians (God bless them) are incredibly busy, generous souls. They have a lot of information at their disposal, but they are not computers. They may have databases, but they cannot always know what they have in the archives, or on the shelf, especially if it isn’t digitized or indexed. Same thing goes with folks who work with public records. Case in point: This week, a reel of film came my way that, once again, I had been told did not exist. And yet, here it is.

Alas, this is the last edition on film. In search of the hard copy in two weeks.

Alas, this is the last edition on film. In search of the hard copy in two weeks.

I find it hard to ask for help at times, but if I don’t when I get stuck, answers won’t be forthcoming. Most of the time, people don’t care if you ask questions, as long as you are polite.

2.  Original documents have hidden gems.

It isn’t enough to Google things in the hope that someone else has already done it, especially if your idea is to add to the knowledge base. You have to read the document, actually, yourself, for understanding. Otherwise, you can miss great details.

I hope it wasn't a case of deadly halitosis.  Source: PEN, October 1912

I hope it wasn’t a case of deadly halitosis. Source: PEN, October 1912

Case in point: Yesterday I found an oddball article that gave me insight into Emmett’s practice. I didn’t know his oratory should have come with health warnings…but I digress. You know how I found this? By reading every page of microfilm on the dated reel under examination. I’m not bragging about this because it is tedious and tiresome.  But if I didn’t do the legwork, I’d have missed this article. (And by the way, please see the note at the bottom of this page with regard to this article.)

3. Kindness goes a long way in the research process.

Emmett hung out with the same people for years, many of whom have descendants with whom I have been in contact. They may have been reluctant to talk to a complete stranger doing this research at first, but over the months, we’ve built up friendships and that’s become incredibly rewarding to me. When I find something about their ancestor in the obscure newspapers, I capture the image and the citation, and send it to them for their own genealogical records. I love hearing that they learned something new about their own family history with the articles I send back. If I get nothing else out of this research, the fact I could help someone else with theirs makes this process worthwhile.

4. The research process is ebb and flow.

There are days when I find several great and obscure articles loaded with new information, but often, there are days when I find nothing. It is easy to get discouraged and lose steam. When that happens, I take a step back and try writing a short essay on some of the points I’ve found so far. Or, I organize my article into the bibliographic database. Once I see the information as it relates to what I’ve already collected, sometimes I get a clue where to look next (if it is something I hadn’t considered before). Or, I just do the next thing, which is:

5.  Take a break from the research.

I don’t know about you, but I like to worry problems to death. I try to dissect them, to study all sides and points of view in my effort to understand Emmett and his life.

Clues that I need a break include frequent references to Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the present tense.

Indian telegraph employee processes telegram on last day of 163-year-old service. Source:

Indian telegraph employee processes telegram on last day of 163-year-old service. Source:

A while back, I remember coming out of my office, and catching the news which featured termination of telegram services in India. I had been deep in the year 1913 at the time. As I watched the news, I remember saying to my husband, very worriedly, “How are those poor people going to communicate with the outside world?”

He gave me a strange look and said, “Er, use their cell phones?”

Message received.

Note: Articles in historic newspapers may contain offensive language that reflected the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The articles shared from research are used to illustrated a record of the past. I do not endorse the views expressed in these news articles, which may contain content offensive to readers.


Categories: Research Status


Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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