30 September 2012 by Published in: Research and Writing 5 comments

Old friend John Hennessy has written a very interesting post on the Mysteries and Conundrums blog, wherein he addresses the positives and negatives of doing in-depth historical Internet research. I’ve been the beneficiary of John’s largesse–he has shared many of the cavalry-related newspaper articles that he has found with me, including as recently as last week when sent me an entire run of 22 articles by a trooper of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry that appeared in a long-defunct newspaper from Vevay, Indiana called the Vevay Reveille. I’ve actually been toying with the idea of transcribing them all and posting them here.

John is, of course, absolutely correct. Internet access to newspapers–some of my favorite sources, by the way–makes it possible to search for this material almost endlessly. But, as John also correctly points out, you definitely hit a point of diminishing returns, usually sooner than later. Quotable quotes are great, of course, but spending hours pouring through stuff for a single quotable sentence becomes a real question of diminishing returns. At some point, you have to decide, “I’ve fought the good fight on the research. It’s now time to put pen to paper and see what I can do with this story.” That means quitting the research process–and accepting the inevitable truth that you will never find EVERYTHING on a Civil War subject–and taking your best shot at writing whatever it is that you’re going to write about. That’s a very difficult thing to do, because you WANT to find everything, but the truth is that you won’t.

When we were writing One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863, the amount of material available on sites like Google Books and the Internet Archive meant that we spent hours and hours and hours searching for material. It meant that we used over 1100 sources in writing the book, but it also meant countless hours of searching, reams of paper and several toner cartridges printing, and then incorporating the material. Don’t get me wrong–I am EXTREMELY proud of what we accomplished with that book, and with the extent and amount of research we invested in it–but I never imagined that we would end up looking at and citing to more than 1100 sources when we started the project, and had that mountain of material not been so readily available, we never would have used as much as we did. We finally had to say “enough” and pull the plug on the researching because we realized that we had hit the point of diminishing returns.

As John correctly points out, the availability of these materials only makes it tougher to know when to call it quits on the research. It’s a fight I constantly fight.

Scridb filter


  1. Tom Clemens
    Mon 01st Oct 2012 at 8:51 pm

    Absolutely true, used to discuss this with Joe Harsh. Sooner or later one must decide that the purpose of the work is fulfilled, and it is time to publish. I know I missed stuff in Carman’s work, but hopefully people will tell me what I missed. The biggest trouble I had with students was the attitude that “if it isn’t on line, it does not exist.” A constant fight to get them to look at books!

  2. Dennis Wolenski
    Tue 02nd Oct 2012 at 6:01 am

    I must agree with Mr. Clemens. I think students like the net because cutting and pasting is a far less labor intensive form of plagiarism than actual copying or typing!

    I also find it difficult to understand how a person could prefer staring at a screen to holding an actual book and turning the pages to read. Must be old I suppose……


  3. Dan
    Tue 02nd Oct 2012 at 3:55 pm

    “We all know researchers and writers for whom the research world begins and ends at their keyboards. If something doesn’t exist online, then they’re not going to see it.”

    One factor that might make the above scenario more likely is if other federal/state/
    local archival repositories fall prey to the same fiscal mismanagement that has plagued us here in Georgia. A lot has been made of the fact that, should nothing change between now and November 1st, the Peach State will be the only one in the Union without public access to it’s archives. I hope the damage is limited to here, but what if this is merely the first break in the proverbial Johnstown dam? Should other state archives end up being closed for lack of funding, we could very well face a future where the ONLY research that can be done is online.

  4. John Lundstrom
    Thu 04th Oct 2012 at 11:06 pm

    Research can be an obsession. I’m very glad I don’t live in easy distance of Washington, else I might be wasting time and health in the Archives seeking the “magic box,” the one stored next to the Ark of the Covenant, that contains all of the crucial documents I could ever imagine for the next book.

    You’ve got to know when to call it quits.

    Best wishes,

  5. Thu 08th Nov 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Some wonderful and very perceptive comments from all!

    Mr. Wolenski is quite right; nothing on a screen can compare to cradling a nicely worn text in your hands!

    It can be so difficult to toe the line where sources are concerned. I wish I could even find 1100 sources for my Franklin Arctic Expedition research!

    Thanks for sharing this great post!

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