Friday, September 18, 2009

Research and References

The article on Idaho gold discoveries and the follow-on period is completed in draft form. As usual, I’ll set it aside to “cool” a day or two before I try to do a final proof and revision. In the meantime, I am collecting more information for my database of “on this day” events.

It might be useful here to describe some key features of my research and writing process. I just counted files for 231 separate articles, monographs, and books (or book sets) in the reference directories on my computer. Most contain multiple pages of text, although some are shorter files that contain only key excerpts from a given reference. On the other hand, several of the major histories are huge – the H. T. French work is 1,320 pages long in 3 volumes, and the J. H. Hawley history comes in 4 volumes that total over 3,400 pages. (A considerable portion of those pages contain see-no-evil biographies of prominent and not-so-prominent citizens.)

A surprising number of the older histories are available in electronic (PDF) format, already scanned by Google or any of several big university libraries. I have downloaded most of those so I can search for information without being online. Of course, some of these files, the Google versions in particular, only allow you to search them online. Still, it’s not that difficult to work from the page numbers in the table of contents or index (if there is one).

When I discover a particularly useful hardcopy reference, I scan all the relevant parts myself – plus some not-so-relevant portions, because you can never be totally sure what might be useful. If the volume doesn’t circulate (true for many rare and special-collections books), I record key excerpts in my laptop computer, or (gasp!) make hand-written notes that I type in later.

In addition to those sources, I have about 150 Reference Series articles from the ISHS, compiled into three big files, as well as about 60 newspaper articles from issues released before about 1910.

Once I have these electronic files, I enter key quotes or summaries into a relational database I have created (using Filmaker® Pro software on a Mac). Data fields show the date, a keyword title, summary text or quotes, a general topic, the geographic region, reference source, and other key features. My current Idaho history database has almost 2 thousand master event records.

By searching in this database, I can quickly assemble a rough outline for a book chapter or article. Then, the reference identifiers allow me to go back to the sources to retrieve the complete blocks of information. (When you do it this way, it’s surprising how much of the content you remember, but it’s always better to check the original.)

This may look like a lot of up-front work, and it is, but it pays off in the long run. For one thing, it lets you compare (or contrast) alternative descriptions of a particular event.


  1. I work on a PC. What's a good database there?

  2. I haven't worked with a PC database for some time, so I'm not really up on that software. However, Filemaker itself is cross-platform and its PC version seems to get pretty good reviews.