Sunday, February 13, 2011

When is research worth it?

Scholarly cat thinks your research is good enough
to sit on, but that's all.
I'm slowly working my way through the State Capitol research photos to which we sacrificed a car.  They're very boring, individually.  My research looks at the material culture (clothing, houses, food, etc) of a Native American group from the 17th century through the mid 19th century, and what changes in material culture say about how the group views itself through time, since the documentary record is mostly written by white people about what white people thought about Indians.  The 19th century for this group is especially under-studied, and State Capitol Archives have a collection of documents that have literally only been accessed once since they were created in 1857.  Besides archivists, I am only the second person to look at these since they were written and put in boxes.  And there's a ton of them, over 600 individual records, all from the reservations I'm studying.

But they are sooooo boring individually.  They're forms, reporting individual losses of personal clothing and equipment during war service, which makes them perfect for my project and not very useful for anyone else.  They're also interesting in that they report the veteran's date of death and age at death, which is hard to come by in the early 19th century for any Native group, and they have signatures of the veteran or heir when literate, so these records are an interesting index of literacy.  (I also study the intersection of material culture and education).  But they're forms, so except with small variations of place, the individual differences are sometimes just the name and maybe a 50 cent difference in the price of a piece of clothing.

I love me some digital quantitative analysis, so I've been entering all of these forms into a spreadsheet so that I can go through later and click some buttons and find the averages, means, and all those good meaningful patterns.  This has worked out good before: I work with a lot of merchants' account books, which get passed over because they're mostly lists of prices and quantities, but some interesting patterns come out when you can see what type of person is buying what type of thing.  And that's hard to do without a computer to tell you, so I've gone through several hand written account books, written before double-entry bookkeeping (so they're all crazzy with notes about things everywhere), digitized them, and found really interesting things.  One in particular is so good that it's probably going to be a dissertation chapter all by itself.  But the process of entering the info into spreadsheets is soooo booooorrrinnnng.  I work for about five hours today, with some snack/internet/cat breaks, and only got through 150 of these forms.  And there are about 400 left.

So I'm in this place right now where the act of research sucks.  The archival part is fun: I get to discover things that no one has seen forever, and decide if it's important to my project.  The end of the digitizing is fun, because I finally get to see the patterns shake out.  But right now I'm trudging through something that I think (hope?) will end up being significant enough to form the basis of a chapter, but I have no way of knowing.  With humanities departments being shut down, and the humanities job market what it always has been (bad) it's depressing to think of this work as going nowhere fast.


  1. I understand what you mean by transcribing after visiting the archive. Did you take pictures of all those forms, or photocopy them? Boh wants to know.

  2. Photos seemed like a good idea at the time, because the archive wanted 30 cents per photocopy and a $30 dollar one-time fee for the archivist to do it. But now I have so maaaaaannnnyy.

  3. At this rate, it should only take three more days, right? :) It must feel good to know that you are definitely creating something new.

  4. I sure hope it only takes a few more days. I'm excited by the thought that no one else has really looked at this period or issue, but I'm kind of in the doldrums thinking that maybe there's a reason for that. :/