How to read & write the field

How to read & write the field

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘How to read & write the field’, and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. How to tame ‘the field’

1.1 How to find out the basic information needed to carry out a successful archival research project? Read all about it first, don’t just plunge in!

1.2 There is nothing more provoking than someone new to archive research turning up at seminars and conferences and saying ‘wouldn’t it be good if there was work on X or Y’  when there actually is an enormous amount on these topics, or proclaiming some supposed discovery from their first forays into archival research when this has in fact been published on by many others. Don’t be one of these sad people! Do the preparation work! Read all about it!

1.3 All researchers stand on the shoulders of those who go before us, not just the shoulders of the giants of our disciplines or interdisciplines, but all the other workers in the field. Knowledge in 99.9999% of instances is not a matter of sudden discovery by one person, but the slow accumulation of understanding by many people.

1.4 What follows is that it should not be assumed that everything that needs to be known will come from carrying out work in an archive or on some other kind of data source – there needs to be a prior preparation process, which involves reading the field of relevant material written by other people who have gone before us and making sense of what we have read. This is best done not only by thinking about this reading, but also through writing about it, in the shape of making plans and diagrams which visually show what the different components of ‘the field’ in question are, writing notes on articles and chapters and books that have been read, and producing short reflective observations or ‘think pieces’ that put shape to how the researcher is thinking about the main aspects of the project. These are all all things to do prior to getting anywhere near an archive.

1.5 The three main activities here are discussed in the order they are most helpfully carried out.

2. Plans, diagrams & making a route-map of ‘the field’

2.1 It might sound a rather grand and complicated thing to do, to draw up a plan and make diagrams, but in fact it involves something quite simple but also very helpful. It involves starting with whatever ‘the topic’ of a proposed piece of research is and writing down where to find relevant information about it, that is the work that other people have already done that is relevant. This provides an outline plan or a diagram of ‘the field’. Making a draft of this and revising it over a couple of days will produce a handy list of areas of work that will need to be reviewed so as to gain an overview of ‘what is going on here’.

2.2 Two examples will help explain. Both are beginning points – that is, as each of the headings these include is explored, this will almost certainly lead to revising or extending some of the points in the list.

2.3 Here is such a plan.

2.4 This first example concerns a substantive topic and a group of people, LMS missionaries, who were dispatched to work in a particular area, which was then called Matabeleland. The focus is on their presence there over a particularly crucial period of time, the 1880s and 90s, when the balance of power changed from strong Matabele independence and rule, to colonial conquest of a particularly violent kind followed by particularly stringent exploitation and disappropriation. It breaks down the topic into these sub-aspects and it briefly indicates where likely relevant material about these matters will be located.

2.5 Doing so produces a kind of intellectual route-map of where to go to find relevant work concerned with this. It is in fact an extended kinds of list, although a list that is returned to, revised and which, when all its elements are taken together, covers an area of investigation and research. Use the map, travel the route, and the researcher will arrive at the beneficial destination of, at least in a preliminary way, ‘knowing the field’of their research topic!

2.6 This first example is substantive and straightforward in the sense that, while it concerns an important topic with many facets, it also has clear boundaries in terms of groups of people, a time-period and a place. The second example for discussion has boundaries that are much more fluid and that could be extended enormously (or else kept tightly in rein). So rather than covering ‘the field’ in an absolute sense, this is example is organised around a beginning point, a particular aspect of the topic that is of interest.

2.7 The second example.

2.8 This second example is a project on ‘whiteness’, with its focal point being ‘critical whiteness’. Starting with this (rather than whiteness in general) signifies an interest in a body of analytical, theoretical and also critical work, rather than for instance focusing on the form that whiteness has taken in a particular time-period or a particular place, or adopting a more substantive and narrative approach in for instance working with interviews or other kinds of personal accounts of whiteness by people on the receiving end of or those who inhabit the category.

2.9 As this indicates, the route-map is itself a beginning interpretation of what ‘the field’ of interest is. Start with ‘whiteness’ generally and the route-map will consist of more substantive aspects and cover something much broader. Start more specifically with ‘critical whiteness’ and the route-map will consist of more theoretical aspects and also be more focused. This is why it is important to return to the research map/diagram on a number of occasions and revise it as knowledge is accumulated and as ‘the field’ of specific interest to the researcher becomes clearer.

2.10 Follow these suggestions and a route-map of ‘the field’ will have been produced and its different composing elements worked through, and what results will be reasonably comprehensive. But what then? This is not to go into an archive or other research location just yet! It is instead to start reading and writing the field, to find out what other people have written that is relevant, and to do this in a systematic way.

3. Notes – reading & writing ‘the field’

3.1 So the task now becomes, to continue with the metaphor, to travel the route set out in the route-map. Elsewhere, I have referred to this using the idea of writing ‘an archive of the other archive’, for this reading also involves writing about the particular piece of research envisaged (see Chapter 2 in The Archive Project, referenced at the end). Reading and writing in an academic context always go hand-in-hand – read something, then write a few notes about it so as to fix its content in mind, in a literal sense doing so on paper or its proxy in the form of a computer file.

3.2 This also requires working in a systematic way, by going down the items in the route-map in turn and for each one searching for key books, articles and book chapters. Then the next step is working through reading all the items produced under each of the headings in a route-map. This will result in building a library in a small way, which is how building a personal library always starts. The library in question will be composed partly of the books, chapters and articles read, and also partly by the researcher’s responses to each of these, that is, comments that have had been written in the margins of paper copies, or using PDF-reader software to attach notes to a PDF version, or in a separate notebook or computer file.

3.3 What does ‘reading’ mean in this context? It doesn’t mean studying every word in every sentence in every paragraph in every item and taking vast amounts of time over this. Instead it means skim-reading in order to work out which of the items in a route-map reading list are more important, and which are not.

3.4 A handy way to do this with a book is to read the description on the back cover, followed by the opening and closing paragraphs of the introduction and then the opening and closing paragraphs of the conclusion. Record the reference information – author, year, title, publisher and place of publication –  and a few bullet-points of notes. If it still looks interesting and important, then read the whole of the introduction and the whole of the conclusion and write half a dozen more aide memoir kind of bullet-points. If it then continues to look really important, use the list of contents and the index to home in on things that are directly relevant to the research being prepared for. And having done that, write some more detailed notes.

3.5 Skim-reading journal articles and book chapters is similar. In the case of a journal article, read the abstract and record the reference information with one or two bullet-point notes. If it still looks useful, read the opening paragraph and the closing paragraph and write a couple more bullet typhoon points. If it continues to look relevant, read the whole thing and write some more bullet-points. Book chapters don’t usually have abstracts, so start with the opening and closing paragraphs and follow the same process as for a journal article.

3.6 Skim-reading in this way is a preparatory activity, a useful way of covering a lot of material in order to pinpoint the things that are especially interesting and important. Read everything thoroughly from the word go, and the researcher will never find what is most important for their project because they will be too busy reading all the stuff that isn’t.

3.7 For people who have never done any skim-read before, it’s best to carry out a preliminary trial on something that isn’t important or directly related to the research reading that will follow, so that ‘not doing it right’ won’t matter. Reckon on about 30 minutes for a whole book and no more than 15 minutes for a book chapter or journal article, and get through as many items as possible in a three hour period without a break. After doing this two or three times, most people find they speed up enormously and stop worrying about whether they have captured every nuance. They’re too busy homing in on the particularly choice items they’ve found as a result and reading these in close detail to worry about the things that aren’t so relevant!

3.8 When doing this ‘for real’, it’s best to produce a large number of readings on a route-map heading first and then calculate a specific and limited time period to skim-read these and try not to exceed it. The point is to cover the field in a preliminary way in order to identify what is most relevant and most important, and it’s useful to keep this in mind. At this stage, fairly superficial will do, it’s important to cover the surface, not to plunge in to any particular depth. That comes later.

3.9 And also, don’t neglect the writing aspect of this. Make sure that short notes are always recorded on everything that is skim-read as well as the reference information for all of this. Something that doesn’t seem so important or useful now may well do so in a year or two’s time, so it is best to have a system which will enable this to be retrieved. It’s also worth saying that it’s best for most purposes to write these bullet-point notes on an actual copy, rather than set up elaborate computer files. If any of these items are later included in a dissertation or thesis or book or article, it will be important to be able to go back to the original item, so a separated off note won’t be sufficient. Best to always make paper copies or PDF versions and write write notes on these.

3.10 The four maxims here are, record basic information on everything read, cultivate the art and science of skim-reading, identify the hard-core important stuff, build an archive of the other archive.

3.11 Once the route-map has been worked through in this way and an archive of the other archive composed by the secondary literature has been produced, it’s time to try out some ideas, to see if they fly or crash to the ground. Reading in the systematic way indicated here across the interlocking bodies of work that compose ‘the field’ of the existing literatures on the topic of interest we’ll set off the mind wanting to express its own ideas and views about questions and issues arising. This is the point at which to consider writing some short reflective ‘think pieces’.

4. Think pieces & reflective observations on ‘the field’

4.1 A ‘think piece’ is just as it sounds, a piece of writing used to think out some more reflective observations on a topic, in this case regarding the various reading that has been done and which composes ‘the field’ of secondary literature on a research topic. There are no rules about what such think pieces might be on – it all depends on what a particular researcher makes of the particular reading.

4.2 It is often helpful, however, to put all the reading and notes away and mull things over for a day or two, to see which topics and questions and issues remain in the mind. It’s also often helpful to pick a piece of work that is fundamentally disagree with, and to write about the whys and wherefores of this.

4.3 Perhaps plan for three or four think pieces on different topics, and to limit their length to around 2-3,000 words. The point of writing in this way is to gather thoughts and to begin to write more systematically about the reading that has been done and to locate oneself in relation to the key ideas that have been advanced by those on whose shoulders we stand. By doing so, it will also become much clearer what the differences are between all that and the kinds of ideas and concerns that we ourselves have. It’s much harder – in fact it’s impossible – to say ‘this is distinctive about what I am doing’ without having a very good idea about what other people have done!

5. An archive comes into view!

5.1 One of the route-maps in planning a piece of research that involves archives of course should be on archival research itself. Don’t forget to do this! All the points made in the previous sections apply in doing this. Some additional pointers when working the route-map of readings on archival research are as follows.

5.2 There is substantial literature on archival research written by people in a number of disciplines and interdisciplines. In mapping it, remember that there are different perspectives, and these are often related to people carrying out research in different kinds of archives and for very different purposes. So what might look like an attractive way of doing things might not in fact be the most suitable for the particular project that someone has in mind.

5.3 A simple example to push this home is as follows. Interesting work on the imperial archive has been conceived around ‘grand’ national-level or international-level archives like the India Office in London or the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Interesting indeed, but nonetheless these ideas won’t be very helpful when working in a local records office or on granny’s button-box with its random contents or if you’re setting up an archive that is a memorial to a deceased family member or colleague. They describe events of importance and significant thoughts and ideas, whereas most research is routine and rather uneventful.

5.4 Theory, including archival theory, is often written very abstractly, so it might seem as though it is composed of general knowledge that can be applied in all research contexts. Not so! Theory is always conceived by a particular person working from a particular location and thinking particular thoughts about particular matters, but with these particularities subsequently removed in the writing process. The generalities of abstract theory have very specific and particular origins, which means that it is incredibly important to test such generalisations against specific circumstances and recognise that they may not entirely (or at all) fit these specificities.

5.5 Similar comments can be made about archival method/ology, which is often written about in a way that is both abstract and also instructional, in the sense of providing general rules and recommendations for activities to carry out. Against these general proposals, it is important to listen out for the ‘noise’ of archival research and read things which give a flavour of the detailed activities involved in carrying out particular projects. And as this indicates, it is most important of all to take notice of the specific context but the researcher is working in, for not archives are the same (slight British understatement) and certainly each and every collection has its differences from all others.

5.6 What these pointers proposed here add up to is that the archival researcher:

  • should be well prepared in the sense of knowing the field,
  • should appreciate the differences between what they are doing and what others have done,
  • should recognise the specificities of the context they are working in, and
  • should be prepared to break or mould the methodological ‘general rules’ to suit their particular research situation.

Last updated: 20 May 2021