Hardwired Historian

As I’ve begun work on the Battle of the Bulge project, I’ve found that there have been some major changes in how I’m able to go about researching the event since the spring of 2007, when I did a similar research project on the Normandy Invasion. Since then, computers have become smaller, Norwich University has a campus-wide wireless network, and information on databases has grown.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been pouring over books and file folders, hunting for references to soldiers who were in a set number of units, dates, locations, specific references to the Battle of the Bulge itself. Four years ago, I brought along a notepad and a couple of pens (or pencils, when I was up in the University Archives), and wrote down every reference that I could find, even the tangential students who might have been in the right area at the right time.

Fast forward to 2010, and the options have changed. Rather than taking a notepad and pen with me, I’ve been carrying my iPad and iPhone, on which I’ve been jotting down information as I find it. Slowly, as the lists are growing, I’m planning on taking the information and placing it onto a spreadsheet. While I do this, I’ve tapped into the wireless network, and as I come across soldiers in various units, I’ve discovered that running a quick check against the unit’s history online can help me determine if the soldier is someone I’ve been able to use, as their unit was present at the battle, or if they were somewhere else at the time, either because they hadn’t arrived, or were in another theater of operations altogether.

The move to electronic recording likewise has the benefit of being able to copy and paste my results directly into a spreadsheet, rather than having the extra step of translating my handwritten notes (no small task!) into the spreadsheet. The transfer of data is transferred between two mediums rather than three. (original, handwritten and computer). It allows me to keep information that I transpose intact far more easily than before.

The next step is something I’m thinking of trying: integrating this with Google Docs, which would allow me to keep my data online, accessible from any number of locations. Unfortunately, this isn’t a very practical thing on an iPad (I can’t easily tab between apps, and I don’t have the internet at home), but for some of the research portions, it seems like it would be an excellent thing to use, especially if someone is working with others. In this case, my girlfriend is helping out with some things, and the ability to update the same piece of data, without redundancies, would be helpful when gathering data is put together.

What I’m hoping is that the move to computers, rather than using handwritten notes, will allow me to be more efficient, and thus quicker, with the research that I’m working on. The amount of information that I need to go though: there’s something like five thousand additional files to go through when it comes to deceased students, not to mention the information on the units and after action reports that exist.

This also covers the first large phase of the research: gathering all of the raw data that I’ll need to form the basis of the project. The next step, actually distilling and then writing the report, is already digital: I can’t actually think of a time when I haven’t used a computer to type up a project. Those advantages are well known, and something that I know to work.

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2 thoughts on “Hardwired Historian

  1. This is interesting to me, because I remember my days in archives, desperately attempting to copy everything in pencil that I could find that pertained to what I was trying to do. Even then (and this was 1996 and 1999, respectively), I realized just how much even a laptop would have helped my efforts, just to avoid that middle step of translating handwritten notes into type. And nowadays? Man, my life would have been so much easier.

    Thanks for bringing this up. I haven’t done historical research since I graduated with my bachelor’s ten years ago, but it brings back memories — and a nice thought of just how far we’ve come in that time.

    • I’ve found that even a laptop, while it would speed up the process a bit, is just really, really bulky. I have a big black Dell, which looks nice, but it’s quite heavy, has a lid and all that. I’m finding with the iPad, while I can’t switch between programs quite as fast, is small, very, very easy to carry, and doesn’t require me to close it when I’m done. I just toss it back in my bag. That’s mostly preferences as to how I work.

      There seems to be a trend towards digitizing, and then indexing records. Combing through archives, I’m finding, is incredibly inefficient, which is the big thing that’s slowing me down. Fortunately, I’m able to search for people within a specific date (their graduation year is on the files that I’m going through), so I don’t need to hit every single file before ruling the person out. The Archives have also said that they can sort things out for me, which will be very helpful when I begin to work up there more often.

      That being said, I’m really enjoying the research phase – I like hunting for references.

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