The Joys of Research: A Personal and Professional Perspective
When the surly employee at the County Clerk Archives in lower Manhattan knows your name (and uses it), you know you've made it as a researcher.
If you’re wondering what it’s like to be a researcher or whether or not you have the qualities of a great researcher, I’ll outline my take on this job here. Research can encompass many areas—academic, nonprofit, culinary, business products etc.—so this is just a snapshot of a few of the projects I’ve worked on.
I spent one summer in the basement of the New York Supreme Court building, obscure little rooms in City Hall, and in the gorgeous New York Public Library where I was researching the history of pizzerias and pizzeria owners in New York. I would request pages upon pages of business certificates, mercantile licenses, and old phonebooks on microfilm, compiling and comparing information from the 1800’s all the way through the 1900’s. And by the end, even the surly (and somewhat bemused) clerks were almost as invested in the project as my client and I. It was one of the most satisfying summers, all thanks to the joys of research.
Being a researcher means going on adventurous scavenger hunts. One clue may take you to a library on the outskirts of town, the next to an office in a completely different neighborhood, and finally into odd rooms in government buildings filled with dusty—and fragile!—papers. By knowing what questions to ask, anticipating your client’s subsequent queries, and following the research down all the corridors it’ll lead you, the accomplishment you will feel upon completion can be significant.
The best researchers have a natural proclivity for asking the right questions in a clear manner before embarking on a deep search and know how to organize the findings in a way that makes sense to the specific project and the client’s needs. While your preference might be to see everything in a Word document, others may find this unclear. Likewise, it’s best to become comfortable using Excel, so that you can showcase your data in a variety of formats. Remember to ALWAYS write down the source of each piece of research, so that you (or your client) can go back and find it whenever necessary. Everyone has their own note-taking methods, but if it’s taking you a while to record and condense your notes, some of these resources may help you:
When I was researching the coverage of the Rwandan genocide in African-American periodicals, on any given day I would find myself at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in the magazine archives at the Schwarzman Building, or with the manuscript and graphics collections at the New York Historical Society. Sometimes it can be difficult to know when to stop, especially if your own curiosity gets the better of you, but following the client’s directives, while politely suggesting other pieces of information that may be helpful to them, is the most efficient use of your time and energy. The triumph at finding material the client desperately wanted is hugely fulfilling, especially when it’s information they didn’t even know was out there.
Of course, research isn’t always glory and an Indiana Jones sense of discovery. Sometimes it’s hours in front of a computer accessing databases that don’t always have the most sensible search functions, piecing together fragments of information into a lengthy and coherent report for an organization that may end up not using anything you found. Regardless, this doesn’t take away from the skills gained or the sense of pride you can take in your work.
Lastly, recharging those research batteries is easily done when it’s for personal gain. Last fall, I spent some time at Linderman library on Lehigh University’s campus (my alma mater). They have almost every single issue of Life magazine, including this incredible special about the American woman in 1956 with essays written by Margaret Mead, Mary Ellen Chase, feminists, anti-feminists, husbands, and more. It was such a wonderful and enthralling find that I ended up receiving it as a Hanukkah present!
If you have an innate curiosity about the world, are unabashed with your constant question asking, and don’t mind a big schlep now and then, you, too, could make a wonderful researcher. If you’re already a personal or professional researcher, I'd love to hear your stories--any particularly proud moments or wacky requests?