Investigating History through Archives and Interviews: A talk by Dr. Maury Klein

Dr. Maury Klein, a URI professor of history emeritus, offered his insights into to the world of historical research through archives and interviews this March at the CI. The event had a wonderful turnout with people from across disciplines at URI—from oceanography researchers to land trust stewards, English doctoral students to urban park managers—all coming out to learn how Dr. Klein makes the most of historical research and the stories it offers which can’t be found online, at the library, or in the field. Though Dr. Klein’s research is not within a scientific field, there were many takeaways for those looking to communicate science effectively to a broad public audience.

Histories Mysteries and Science’s Secrets – Disciplinary Detective Work

He opened by addressing the ways in which scientific and historical research are not so different—both seek answers like detectives in a mystery story—one in the material present, and the other in the recorded past. Though he has researched scientists, such as James Van Allen, he does not do research in labs or in the field. Or, rather, his lab and field lay elsewhere—in the interview room, library, internet, or archive—and most curiously—in the unsuspecting ways these sites overlap to lead him to obscure holdings. He has found key information that allowed him to tell the story of important histories in overlooked bookshelves of family cabins, centuries old train station warehouse dumpsters, or even as a result of a phone call from a stranger.

Nine Rules of Effective Research Learned from Five Decades of Successful Practice

Dr. Klein notes that research, regardless of discipline, shares many of the same characteristics. Keeping these characteristics in mind explicitly is his rule for producing the effective research that led to his nineteen books and numerous essays.

  1. Patience – the time and effort it takes to comb through all the sources you will need to view for a research project can be overwhelming. This can even seem like more than you can manage. His advice is, rather than think about the whole, to just continue to do the next thing.
  2. Persistence – even though you can only ever do the next thing, you must continue this effort even if the end is not in sight.
  3. Imagination – research is directed by the questions you ask. You don’t know what you don’t know, yet, with research you can’t find an answer without a question. You need to be able to imagine a question that reaches beyond what you already know.
  4. Proportion – knowing when, where, and how to cut off your research is key. Knowing how to limit the scope of a project is a first step towards this despite the imaginative leap that begins an endeavor. It is important to keep in mind that if you never finish the research, especially with something as large as a book or dissertation, it won’t matter since no one will ever see it. You need to be able to decide when to stop looking and start telling the story.
  5. Clear focus – it is difficult to read things and only look for what you are looking for, but you need to be able to do this or no amount of persistence and patience will turn your research into a story you can tell.
  6. Making Connections – the core of education is making connections between things you never saw before encountering them in close proximity. He shares how, as an undergraduate he had a common aha moment when he started to see that all the classes are connected despite their different ways of seeing the same things. It is the same at the research level. Things that seem inconsequential end up being connected, and even changing the direction of what you are doing entirely.
  7. Organization – his method for organizing his sources and notes appears to be almost archival in itself. The more stuff you have the more organized you need to be. You never want to be looking for something endlessly just in order to finish a sentence when you are finally telling the story.
  8. Style – style is about not just writing but finding a way for how you want to do the research and story drafting itself. This is a way of navigating stuff. The same system won’t work for everyone but everyone needs a system, even if it is of their own making.
  9. Judgment – you are constantly making decisions as a researcher in small ways—about where you will look, what you will address next, what is important, what the connections are. You also need to decide what will the source allow you to do, what the source tells you, how does it help you answer your question, what is the data telling you? It will not be self-evident. The more contextual and background information you know before you start, the easier it is to decide.

Though all this may sound overwhelming itself, he adds that research is fun if you like doing it. He always used to tell students who would ask: what can you do with a history major? – if you chose not to find a career doing what you like to do you’ll end up a miserable rich person. The research you do comes down to the size of what you are trying to accomplish – small projects will involve more targeted searching, and large ones comprehensive immersions – regardless of size however, you can’t control where the material takes you, and you must be willing to follow it to find the story you need to tell.

Plumbing the Archives

Here are Dr. Klein’s practical tips on doing archival work:

-Don’t take notes. You don’t know what you will need later. Always photocopy, scan, or photograph sources when possible.

-Don’t just look for primary sources, archival holdings of researchers materials also sometimes contain original documents from their own archival work, much of which may have become lost or is now even harder to access.

-You must do the initial leg work to find out where the holdings are which you need to access; this is not as straight forward as typical library searches.

-Go look at things yourself and don’t have someone do your research for you, they will make decisions for you and since you don’t know exactly what you are looking for until you find it, this can lead to missed opportunities.

-You need your own system of determining what is of interest.

-Companies that are around for a long time often hold on to centuries of records comprehensively. Many will allow you access if you ask and have the right connection.

-Large and/or important families often hang on to archival items until the death of the last surviving kin, often things get lost. Many will allow you access if you ask and have the right connection.

-A source on one thing will often convey information about something else; for example, he once found 19th century railway engineer notebooks that contain much flora and fauna notes about surrounding landscape which they were laying track through.

-Periodicals are a great source because they don’t know what is coming next so they are good for giving you the tone of the day.

Instigating Interviews

Dr. Klein notes that, often, there isn’t always enough direct primary source material to make a source driven story, so you may need to branch out. Interviews are both a good way to do this, and to find additional sources. He suggests asking people for introductions to other people you can interview to help you with your story, this often leads back to archival holdings you would not otherwise have found. Inventory who you know. Keep track of who they know. Ask around.

When there is a generation of people outgoing you can often convince a company or organization to debrief the outgoing staff and get a good story that would otherwise have been lost, or good leads. Hence, interviews often lead to unforeseen research directions, and will help you bring your story to life later, connecting it to real and present world. With contemporary history, interviews are more important often than the archival documents. Finally, and most importantly, Klein urges researchers to always record an interview, and back it up ASAP. If you do lose it, however, you can call back and say: I had some follow up questions. Use this call to clarify key information minimizing what is lost.

Telling the Story

For Dr. Klein, how he organizes his notes and sources on archival documents and interviews corresponds to how he will write the story they tell. He picks what stories to tell several ways. Sometimes it is assigned to him – an opportunity presents itself from a publisher, educational organization, or even law firm, and he accepts it if it intrigues him. Other times he decides on his own to pursue something. In this case it is often something he wants to know more about – and what better way. The point is that you never know where a topic will come from. You never know where your research is going to take you or what further avenues it is going to open up for you. It used to always be important to answer the phone as the vanguard of career success, now it is never ignore an email, explore every opportunity. Klein explains one often blunders into things. He seems to say, however, that in order to do so, you must already be immersing yourself in an area, rather than researching narrowly or transactionally. You need to carve out the space to do exploratory work and the story will usually reveal itself. When thinking about how to tell a story – how to present information so that it does not overwhelm a reader, Dr. Klein explains the way you communicate will depend on how you approach the research. For him, this leads to a sort of condensed style. He likes to say as much as he can in as small a space as possible, this leads to succinct and dense sentences and necessitates using active verbs, the opposite of, say, a Victorian style.

Most importantly, you need to be able to see the scaffolding of the story the data will tell. When a story has not been told yet it isn’t usually because the facts aren’t known, so much as it is that researchers haven’t yet found a way to scaffold the information. The scaffolding – or organizational structure – emerges during the research stage, which you make explicit in your telling. When revising his stories, he follows the same style of condensation, rather than altering the scaffolding and reorganizing or removing whole sections. He goes page by page reducing each by an equal percentage. All of this – research and writing – are more achievable if you have regular work habits – a routine that you follow. For him, this is writing seven days a week, every morning at least. He doesn’t take vacations because his work is fun. Regarding the presentation of quantitative data, he suggests always writing at a level comprehensible by a non-technical reader. He also suggests not so much explicating the data as providing it alongside a qualitative narrative which emerged from it.


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