A Historian At Work: In the [Secondary] Research Grind

I love my work. I know, I know: Sometimes I grouse. But honest: I love my work.

But it can leave my brain feeling like an old sweatsock that’s been hit by a Mack truck.

Like today. For the past week, I’ve had my elbows planted on my desk, reading stacks of books. Stacks of ’em. My elbows are numb and so is my brain.

So: I’m taking a break. Which brings me to my point: How do historians find all those pesky facts? (You know: Those facts that allow us to tell stories.)

As I noted here in another rumination on doing history, historians engage in two kinds of research: Primary and secondary. Most of my work is based on primary sources and if I’m not writing, I’m usually reading those (newspapers, diaries, letters, government reports, legal documents).

Sometime I spend weeks reading nothing but primary sources. But at some point, I have to turn to the secondaries. It’s the least  favorite part of my job.  I just can’t get as enthused about secondary sources. But they’re necessary — indeed, fundamental — to the process.

For example: I’m writing a history of meat in modern America. To do so, I need to know about property law, anti-trust regulation, federal land policies, food legislation, and seventy-five other topics that are not directly related to the main topic of “meat.” That’s where the secondary sources come in.

Take anti-trust regulation. (Please!) Anti-trust laws play a crucial role in the history of modern American meat processing and distribution. But I’m no legal historian, so to learn about anti-trust, I turn to scholars who specialize in its history. (Bless their geeky hearts.) I’ve waded through several scholarly books and articles on the topic, trying to get a sense of what happened when (and, with any luck, why).

Now that I’ve done that, I have the background I need to turn directly to the anti-trust cases themselves. Put another way, I use the secondary sources to ground myself so that the primary sources in a specialized field like the history of law make sense. If I tried to just read the anti-trust rulings on their own, I’d be lost. Once I’ve got some basic background, however, I’m confident I can make my own judgments about the primary material.

But these mini-crash courses are exhausting. Scholars tend to assume their readers are already experts, so I spend half my time decoding their jargon. (That’s especially true of legal and economic historians. Jargon City.)

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past ten days: Taking crash courses in law, federal land policy, and changes in cattle ranching in the early twentieth century.

And yes, I know what you’re wondering: “How do historians know when to focus on primaries and when to rely on secondaries?” “How do they know what’s “tangential” to their topic and what’s not?” Good questions! I’ll answer them later.


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