Research Strategies, Pt. 3: Research Roadblocks

This post is a continuation of Research Strategies, Pt. 2: What to Expect at the Archive.

Although there is snow on the ground in Boston this week (!), in two short months we at the MHS and partner institutions will be welcoming our BSS16 researchers to Boston! As our seminar participants are preparing to spend time with manuscript, print, and artifact materials in our reading rooms, I wanted to offer a few tips and tricks for overcoming roadblocks to research thrown up by difficult or opaque sources.

Gnarly Handwriting


Henry Adams to Annie Fell, 5 December 1886, page 1. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Commentators regularly opine the decline of handwritten documents and the teaching of handwriting in schools, yet I always suspect that these grumps have rarely tried to decipher eighteenth-century script! Seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century writers had penmanship as various as we do today. Henry Adams (left) wrote in a tidy, looping hand — but not everyone was so legible. Luckily, there are resources available to assist you in deciphering difficult handwriting.

Don’t panic!


My first piece of advice is to practice patience with handwritten manuscripts. Documents that first appear illegible may become easier to read as you grow used to the author’s hand. Take a first pass at the document, transcribing all of the words and partial words that you can make out. “Illegible” words may become clear through context. Also, compare confusing letter combinations to other portions of the manuscript, since individuals tend to combine “Th” or “ing” in similar ways over time. The first page of a manuscript may be agony to transcribe, but the second and third page will likely be easier and faster.

A research partner or library staff member may also bring fresh eyes to the document; I have also had good luck crowdsourcing a confounding word or phrase by photographing the section and sharing it on social media with a request for assistance.

If you have a particularly knotty (yet key) handwritten source, the reference book Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry may be useful. It is available in the MHS reference collection and any member of the library staff will be happy to assist you in locating it.

Persons of Mystery

Particularly when working with personal papers, accounts can be rich with a cast of characters whose biographical details are assumed or obscured: “Dinner with Mrs. R.” or “Aunt Susan feeling poorly.” While it may not be key to your argument to uncover the full identity of every person mentioned, at times those connections can prove vital to uncovering further evidence or crafting your narrative. In those cases, what do you do?

Evidence internal to the collection may help you in assembling a relationship network: Does correspondence include envelopes or address information? If these are family papers, are there any documents such as school, legal, or business records that may contain more formal biographical information? If the individuals mentioned in passing share membership in a church or social club with the author of the document, this may provide clues leading you to the mystery person’s identity.

Print collections at the archive where you are working may also prove useful, as many archives collected printed biographies and family histories related to their manuscript collections as well as business directories, city directories, telephone books, cemetery guides, town histories (often including biographical sketches of prominent residents), and government records including property records, birth, death, and marriage records.

Finally, the tools of a genealogist may be useful even though it is most likely not your own family you are researching. The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) has online databases, some freely available to the public, that might assist you in determining an individual’s biographical details. The Massachusetts State Archives has a searchable index to vital records (birth, death, and marriage records) for the state from between 1841-1910 available on their website. The Boston Public Library (BPL) also has many databases available to users on-site.

Both NEHGS and the BPL are less than a mile’s walk from the MHS.

Slang, Shorthand, and Other Word Mysteries

Every era has its slang, every profession or occupation its specialized jargon. Whether you are working in a subject area familiar to you or approaching a new topic, you will likely encounter abbreviations, notations, and slang that baffle you.

While “Google it” is not always the solution, in many cases putting an unfamiliar term or abbreviation into the Google search box along with a key word or two can turn up results!  Remember, though, that sometimes terms can shift meaning over time—“gay” in the 18th century did not carry the connotations it does today, to give one well-known example. Be sure to do your best to verify your definition using period sources.

This is where slang dictionaries can help! The MHS reference collection includes slang dictionaries; other research libraries will include dictionaries for specialized fields (such as medical or legal dictionaries) that may be useful in clarifying terms. Our researchers have also found period dictionaries useful — and many of these are available full text online! For example, a search for “slang dictionary” in the Internet Archive returns 75 such works on colloquial, slang, jargon, cant, argot, and “passing” English terminology.

The Internet Archive, Google Books, Project Gutenberg, and HathiTrust are all places to search for full-text editions of public domain texts and may help you clear up language questions from your laptop while you are working in the reading room.

Pay Attention to Archival Absences

You arrive at the archive and request a collection that you have anticipated being rich with information relevant to the question you are asking … only to find that what looked like a promising collection contains no relevant details whatsoever.

This time, panic!

…Nope, still don’t panic.

Sometimes—in historical analysis as in visual art—composition has as much to do with negative space as it does with the individuals and objects in the frame. It may be that the source you have in front of you genuinely has nothing of value to your research. Or it could be that the source is an opportunity to reconsider how you are asking your research question. If a source you anticipated would be full of information about your topic is, in fact, silent, that tells you something.

If, for example, you are studying male students’ opinions about coeducation during the early twentieth century, and the student newspaper is silent on the subject, this could mean a number of different things. It could mean that the male students were so comfortable with coeducation they had no need to discuss it. It could mean that being educated alongside women was so far outside of their expectations that it was not a subject of debate. It could mean that the student newspaper was the kind of publication in which views on such a controversial subject were avoided. It could mean that no students outside of the journalism department were interested in the student paper and instead debated important campus issues elsewhere.

All of these possibilities suggest avenues for further inquiry, and whichever is corroborated by additional sources will help you shape your historical narrative.

Don’t Neglect the Reference Desk!

In each of my research strategies posts, I have taken a moment to remind seminar participants that the reference staff at our participating institutions are here to help you! Reference staff is trained to assist researchers when they get stuck or start to feel hopeless about their searches or sources. Stop by the reference desk or ask for a research appointment, and one of us will be available to help you map out a new route or shift gears to get over the speedbump. It is part of what keeps each day at the library fresh and exciting!

~ Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, MHS Liaison Librarian

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