Ready, Set, Research!

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Last October in a blog titled [My] Research Seminar I introduced the Macmillan Community to the research project I am working on during my semester-long sabbatical -- a study of care of the mentally ill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island during the first half of the twentieth century. Last fall as I wrote that blog I was trying to imagine what a semester of research would feel like after eleven years of teaching full-time at a community college.

Preparation for spring semester usually starts something like this for me: I take some time to look the the materials I will be using in my spring courses. I go through my notes, studying the syllabi from previous semesters, to make sure that I remember to implement necessary changes. Often I will do some additional secondary source reading to add new content.

I find myself now in uncharted January waters: Where do I start? It’s time for me to listen to the advice I’ve long given my students about conducting research: plan carefully and ask for help.

My research has been on the periphery of my teaching for three years now, which means I’ve accumulated a significant amount of stuff: books, articles, emails, and notes-to-self about various ideas and leads. As much as I want to immediately get started in the archives, I have instead spent the last few days organizing everything that I gathered in the planning stages of this project. Through this seemingly mundane task I have been able to start a list of questions about potential sources and research materials.

As I’ve become more “organized,” however, I have grown increasingly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material that exists on my topic. My typical advice to students about narrowing their topic to something manageable echos in the back of my mind. At this point, however, it is too early for narrowing: I need to visit the archives before I can take that important step. For the time being, therefore, I need to tread water in this sea of names, dates, places, theories, diagnoses, and treatments.

In hopes of making sense of all that is ahead of me I’m turning to the experts for guidance. Over the past two weeks I’ve sent dozens of emails to librarians and archivists seeking advice about collections. I’ve also spent a good deal of time comparing early-twentieth-century diagnosis terminology with modern-day terms. I’m hopeful that all of this prep-work will help me to be more efficient in the archives.

What advice do you give to students as they are beginning a research project? Are there things that you personally do to keep from being overwhelmed by a large amount of material? Any new apps for keeping archival research organized? Please share!

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.