What Does It Take to Research History?

A recent trend in research questions has developed in the history field. When I started at the Morrison County Historical Society close to two decades ago, most research questions were fairly easy to look up and answer. Someone needed an obituary for an ancestor. Someone else wanted the date of a town founding, or a little history on a famous person from the area, or a list of the major industries in the county. Pretty basic stuff that took flipping through handy resources at the Weyerhaeuser Museum to find.

With the voluminous data now available on the internet and people readily able to conduct their own online searches, the questions that come to us tend to be much more difficult to answer, requiring access to sources that aren’t in our collection, don’t exist, or will take hours, days, weeks, or months of searching to unearth. “Can you tell me when the addition was put on my house and who constructed it?” “When was the culvert on Maple Street put in?” “How many different businesses have been in the ‘Y’ Block?”

The other tough questions that now come to us seem simple on the surface, but take an amazing amount of knowledge to conjure a reply. Questions along the lines of, “What’s the history of the Kiewel Brewery?” or “What do you know about the Ojibwe chiefs in the area?” or “Who were all the mayors of Royalton?”

Because these questions are easy to ask, the expectation is that museum staff can easily answer them by pulling the information straight out of our brains, without looking anything up. And because our brains are supposed to download as quickly as a computer, surely it can’t take any real skill to do what we do.

The reality from the standpoint of museum staff is quite a bit different, so I want to take the opportunity to explain how we go about researching history.

When a question comes in, for example, “Who were all the mayors of Royalton?,” the first thing we do is check our handy resources, books like Clara Fuller’s The History of Morrison and Todd Counties, Minnesota, or the Royalton box in the archive. If the answer isn’t readily available in one of the museum’s previously curated collections, we think about whether another community organization might have it. This usually leads to a phone call or two.
If we can’t find another source with an answer, we know it’s time to do some serious digging, typically in the local newspapers. This is where a heavy dose of patience and persistence pays off. It takes sitting in front of the microfilm reader, often spending hours, scanning through the news to find what we’re looking for. In the case of the list of Royalton mayors, it took Ann Marie Johnson, our curator of collections, months of this work in order to compile the list we now have available on our website. http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/royaltonmayors.pdf When you see the end result, it’s difficult to imagine the amount of effort that went into it.

Because museum staff does research on a daily basis, we usually know instantly when a question is going to take a lot time to answer and advise people accordingly. We want to find answers fast, mostly to keep costs down for those making a request. We charge $5 for the first half-hour of staff research and $25 an hour after that. For those who want to do their own research, we only charge for the cost of any copies they need. To put our research fees into perspective, we recently asked our accountant a tax-related question and were charged $50 for a five-minute phone call. [November 1, 2016 – Note: MCHS’s research fees are subject to change without notice. This article was written in 2014 and MCHS research rates are changing December 1, 2016.]

Over the years, we have figured out efficient ways to conduct research. Part of that efficiency comes through our constant curation of content. We build subject boxes on topics of interest to researchers, subjects like murders, photographers, food-related businesses, Pine Tree Lumber Company, baseball, artists, business buildings, and disasters. Researchers who are accustomed to visiting archives express awe over the amount of material we have compiled in our subject boxes. They understand how much time we have saved them in conducting their own research. Of course, we don’t have subject boxes on every possible question we could be asked, so there’s always more to be done.

After working with Morrison County’s history for over eighteen years, it might seem as though I know it all and can just riff on any bit of history at will. The reality is that there is too much to remember. While I’m immersed in researching a particular topic, say, the Little Falls ravine that I covered in the last newsletter, I can call up details, but as soon as I’m done, the details leave my head. Here’s my secret to remembering local history: I write it down, using lots of citations in my articles. Then, I can return to the articles I’ve written and go back to the sources in answering researchers’ questions. Writing history is another form of curation for us at MCHS.

Accuracy in history is of the utmost importance to museum staff when conducting research. When people ask what they think is a “quick” question, one of those things they think we should be able to download from our brains, what really happens in the name of accuracy is that we have to go to our resources to make sure we have the correct answer. We would hate for our quick responses to be wrong and then repeated. Museums are seen as trusted sources in society and we don’t want to violate that trust.

And there you have it, what it really takes to research history – an incredible amount of work that remains largely invisible. If only we had someone like Mike Rowe to take people behind the scenes of, not Dirty Jobs, but patient, unglamorous jobs.

Mary Warner
Museum Manager

This article first appear in the MCHS Newsletter, Volume 27, Number 4, 2014.

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