Thursday, December 28, 2017

Tuchman on the Mechanics of Research

Barbara Tuchman in Practicing History (1982) explains her methods of research. Index cards play an important part in her approach:
I take notes on four-by-six index cards, reminding myself about once an hour of a rule I read long ago in a research manual, 'Never write on the back of anything.' Since copying is a chore and a bore, use of the cards, the smaller the better, forces one to extract the strictly relevant, to distill from the very beginning, to pass the material through the grinder of one's own mind, so to speak. Eventually, as the cards fall into groups according to subject or person or chronological sequence, the pattern of my story will emerge. Besides, they are convenient, as they can be filed in a shoe box and carried around in a pocketbook. When ready to write I need only to take along a packet of them, representing and chapter, and I am equipped to work anywhere, whereas if one writes surrounded by a pile of books, one is tied to a single place, and furthermore likely to be too much influenced by other authorities.
The limitations of physical index cards she lists as advantages do not exist for electronic index cards. You cannot store them in shoe boxes, you cannot carry them around in your pockets, and you are not limited by the size of the cards. But I don't think the lack of these limitations makes the approach to store research in discrete bits of information any the less important. It just means that you have to use even more self-control. Don't let your topics or records increase to unwieldy length and summarize rather than quote (unless you really want the verbatim record).


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