U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
Organize research tasks in an efficient and logical fashion. Decide what you need to know and where you can find it. Make a list of the questions you must answer. Make a list of specific tasks, noting where you need to go, to whom you need to speak, and what you expect to find, and the order in which you intend to proceed. Determine your possibilities and limitations. You can save yourself time and effort by defining the parameters of your project in advance. You can alter, discard, or add questions to tasks as you proceed. Once you know exactly what you need to find, and have a good idea where to find it, you are well on your way to accomplishing your goal.
Remember that the property itself is a primary source of information. Walk through the property and gather information that describes it, noting distinctive features and obvious alterations and changes. Examine all buildings and structures, inside as well as out. Examine the grounds, noting any signs of previous buildings or activities (foundations, wells, etc.), and roadways, paths, vegetation, fences, and other features.
Identify what historic information is readily available, perhaps in the collections of the owners, a neighbor, or the community. As early as possible, establish the construction date for the property. This date may help establish an earliest beginning date for your period of significance. In addition, try to discover the names of the persons who owned or lived in the property, or for a business or institution, the names by which the property has been known through its history. With this information, you are less likely to overlook information under an unfamiliar name. Examine your property in relation to the historic events and development of the community of which it is a part to determine the context in which it is significant. Gather and record this general information as you gather the specific facts about your property.
Contact all organizations and institutions holding source materials well in advance of the time of your visit. Organize and write down the questions you want to ask before you make your initial contact. Keep notes of all conversations. Explain exactly what you wish to accomplish. Determine the hours and procedures for using special collections, archives, and other records. Make arrangements with the person most knowledgeable about the collection you wish to use, so that you do not arrive at the facility to discover the person you need to see is unavailable.
Explain to the research facility personnel exactly when you wish to arrive, how long you will be able to stay, and exactly what you wish to see. In this way, the material will be ready for you. In addition, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover the material you need can be sent on interlibrary loan to your local library. Talk to the staff, especially reference people, archivists, and librarians. They may have fresh ideas or leads to suggest, and may be able to resolve confusion. Bear in mind that they will guide your efforts but will not do your research for you.
Identify and follow any special rules and requirements for using a collection beforehand, e.g., no photographs, no photocopying, no tape recording, note-taking with a soft pencil only, photocopy costs, what you may or may not be allowed to bring, hours for special staff, etc.
Examine information thoroughly before reading it. Review table of contents, indices, and any accompanying research guides or "finding aids" prepared by staff. Do you need to go through every piece of paper? Can you skip some sections of the book? Is this publication really what you thought it was when you requested it? Did you get everything you requested? Learn how to use the directories, guides, indices, files, catalogs, and publications lists for various collections. Explore general guides to archival materials, manuscript collections, dissertations, and photographic collection for additional sources that may help you in your research.
Record consistently the documentation and sources of information from your research. Use a standard bibliographical style such as that found in A Manual of Style or A Manual for Writers by Kate L. Turabian, both published by the University of Chicago Press.
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