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Henningsen: Research Revolution

If you want to read the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, all you have to do is go to the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website and a few clicks will get you there. For every television ad in every presidential campaign since 1952, accessing “The Living Room Candidate” site at the Museum of the Moving Image is child’s play.

Watergate tapes? Jefferson’s letters? The Boston Gazette and Weekly Newsletter for 1736? Civil War diaries? Passenger lists from the famine ships that brought Irish immigrants to America? They’re all on line. So are library catalogs. For historians, the physical task of research has never been easier.

It wasn’t always thus. I recently came across a journal I kept during graduate school, detailing the task of locating original sources in a university library. I was working on the Civilian Conservation Corps, hot on the trail of an obscure pamphlet, central to my inquiry. Here’s what I wrote, some thirty years ago, about one afternoon’s search in the documents library:

“It’s all very simply really. The Civilian Conservation Corps was officially known as the Office of Emergency Conservation Work until 1937, so you must always look under both headings for the information you need. The agency combined the efforts of four cabinet departments – Agriculture, Interior, Labor, and War – with some twenty-five other agencies and departments thrown in for good measure.

So, if you’re looking for A Handbook for Educational Advisors in the CCC , published in January 1934, you look first under Emergency Conservation Work. No go. Try Office of Education. Nope. Try U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Education. Well, there’s a heading for that, but your book isn’t listed. Then you remember that the Army ran the CCC camps and was officially responsible for the educational program. Try War Department.

Sure enough, there it is: ‘ A Handbook for Educational Advisors in the CCC , prepared by the Office of Education, U.S. Department of the Interior, for the Department of War, for the use of CCC camp educational advisors working for the Office of Emergency Conservation Work.’ Now how hard was that?

But the real fun begins when you actually hunt it down on the shelves. It’s all of nine 3” x 5” pages on flimsy newsprint. And it’s misfiled. It’s not with other Army documents on the CCC, but in an envelope half a shelf away containing rules and regulations for navigating the Ohio River. You find it because the Documents Librarian, whom you’ve drafted to help, knocks it off the shelf by accident.”

Historian Barbara Tuchman once said that some scholars never emerge from the archives because “they can’t bear to bring their research to an end.” I think it’s more likely that they’re still down there trying to find their way out.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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