I have a fool-proof information gathering strategy that has been tremendously successful in every single research project:
- Isolate the topic
- Search all easily/readily available information via basic search engines
- Read everything (this can take weeks)
- Journal during the search/reading time
- Reflect on the information
- Organize the information
- Consult with a research librarian/archivist
Note that writing up the research is nowhere to be found at this stage. (It would be almost a year before I felt like I had enough information to write about one small part of Emmett’s life.) My goal in the early days of any project is to get all the information available on the topic. THEN read it, THEN journal/reflect, THEN organize it. For the record: Journaling is something I’ve always done on works-in-progress, to capture impressions, clarifications, feelings, ideas, and so forth during the lifetime of the project.
When I look back over the notes about Emmett in May 2013, I’m amazed at how naive I sounded; how “taken” I was with this man who seemed to have died pathetically, how “noble yet misunderstood” I felt Emmett was at the time of his death.
An entry for May 6, 2013:
“…it it possible to fall in love with a research subject? But one has to accept the subject as he or she is, warts and all. (Emmett) was no saint, no monk. He was a human being who lived his life in his time in the way he knew how to do it, and how it was modeled before him.”
As I look back through my handwritten pages, I wondered if I’d really fallen in love with Emmett — it wasn’t uncommon — or if it was more that I was trying to see the best of the man I knew nothing about, instead of trying to see information I had as just data at this point. Regardless, I had to step back from the edge of the admiration abyss as I dug up data about Emmett’s life. I was anxious to find data, good or bad, exciting or disappointing.
The research auto pilot filter kicked on automatically at that point — I knew what I had to do next.
Data has always calmed me; I literally feel my blood pressure drop a few points when I look at research spreadsheets.
Within the first few days of starting Emmett’s research, I created basic spreadsheets, charting out everything I could find about Emmett Wilson in his lifetime. (I later added entries for family members, close friends and business associates within the same spreadsheets, for context and background. Today, that spreadsheet is hundreds of pages long.)
This was extremely helpful, because many of the clips and articles I found were not in chronological order.
Eventually, Emmett’s spreadsheets became a valuable time-line in which I was able to reconstruct his career, charting the ups and downs — the downs in Emmett’s life became easily predictable. The spreadsheet definitely made it easy to construct Emmett’s story fact-by-fact — but that astringent approach was distasteful to me:
This was a man’s life — who was I to ‘sum it up’ so neatly in a spreadsheet? The hubris of the idea….
…and then, there was this entry in my notes, also on May 6, 2013:
“I think I’m afraid I won’t like some of the information I find out about him. That may be true. But it is still his information, not mine, and regardless, I accept him and his life’s story to tell without reservation….I don’t have or need to like it at all. I just need to accept.”
Which I did — with the help of some fine research archivists and librarians.
Next: Family connection
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