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