What You Can Discover
This may be the first time you have ever visited a museum or a historical site as part of the research process. In fact, these may seem like strange places to be doing research. There are no large volumes of reference information, no computers, and they are places you are probably more familiar with from visiting as a tourist, not as a student. You may be surprised at just how much you can discover at a museum or historical site.
Historical photos have many uses. Such photos are a visual record of places, events, and people. A photo of a specific location in a certain year is a graphic record of landforms, vegetation, and buildings that often no longer exist. Photos were often taken, as they are now, to commemorate an event. Photos would have been taken at a presidential inauguration or at the completion of building a railway. Though most photos were staged, as opposed to being candid, they still represent the key people involved at the time. Whenever it is known, historical photographs will include the date and location of the photo and the names of all those shown. Looking at historical photos can reveal any of the following:
People who were present at a particular event
Clothing worn by people in a certain time period
Tools and machinery used by people in a certain time period
Family and friends of a historical figure
How specific locations have changed in appearance over time
Larger museums often have gift shops that sell reproductions of the art and photography contained in their collections. If you're very lucky, you may be able to purchase a postcard or other replica of the image you want to include in your research paper.
You will not be able to include original photos in your research paper if they only exist as part of a display. If that's the case, you can describe what you see in the photo in detail, or jot down particular features you note and where you saw them. You need to take these notes at the time you see the photo; do not try to write them later from memory.
Letters and Journals
Handwritten records are another extremely useful form of research material. Family members who understand the significance of these objects often donate them to a museum. Because they are penned during the writer's life throughout a certain period in history, they represent a first-person account of the events and the feelings of the time. They often are written on a very personal level, with no details left out. Letters of interest could be those written home to a loved one or those written to a colleague. Journals, or diaries, are written on an even more personal level. They chronicle the writer's most intimate thoughts and knowledge and thus can sometimes dispel commonly held beliefs. Letters and journals may be written during a war or during a journey to a new place. They may be written by honorable citizens or by hardened criminals, and by people of any age, race, or social background. Because of this diversity, letters and journals cover a wide range of topics, and you can draw a wide range of information from them. Although the original copies of these letters and journals are too fragile to be handled, some have been turned into books. While these are occasionally edited to some extent, they still contain much of the author's original writing. These include such works as the following:
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl—Anne Frank was a teenaged Jewish girl in hiding from the Nazis with her family. The events that she wrote about occurred in Amsterdam from 1942 to 1944.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys—Written from 1660 to 1669 in London, England, Samuel Pepys's diary includes his thoughts about the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London.
Lincoln's Letters—This is a collection of letters and speeches written by Abraham Lincoln. They are arranged in chronological order.
Florence Nightingale's Theology—These are the essays, letters, and journal notes of the woman who is regarded as the founder of nursing as we know it. • Diary of a Confederate Soldier—These are the memoirs of John S. Jackman of the Civil War's Orphan Brigade.
Another possible source for these materials is audiobooks, which are an excellent option for students (or anyone) with a long commute.
Because letters and journals are writings of a personal nature, instead of hard data, they may contain misleading information. However, they do offer insight into personal feelings that hard data does not reveal, and questionable information can be compared to other recognized sources of information.
Historical documents include all other written records that are not personal writing. These could include land titles; records of immigration, marriage, birth, and death; passenger lists for ships or trains; or court records. This is only a small sampling of the type of documents you may find at a museum or historical site. What you actually find depends both on your research paper topic and on the availability of certain historical documents. It also depends on the type of museum or historical site you visit. One that is specialized has documents relating to that specialized topic. Of course, you want to make use of every piece of data and every record you can find that fits in with your topic. But at times it is not immediately evident that the information contained in a document is of use to you. It is usually best to record everything you find that might be useful, and go through your notes later to decide whether in fact your research paper benefits from that information.
For example, suppose you are writing a paper about the Underground Railway. You are following the story of a certain slave who escaped to freedom. You may be looking for a record of which ship brought this man to America, the date and place he died, and any land titles he held after he was freed, but you also may find bank records, military records, or baptismal records at a museum or historical site along the slave route he traveled. You also may find these documents at a site specifically dedicated to the issue, such as the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Data from historical documents must be copied down exactly. Always double-check to be sure that you have recorded correct dates, names, and places, including correct spelling. If you find two records that don't agree, seek out another source to confirm which is correct. If you cannot find another record, write down the information from both sources.