Bad Researchers, and How To Be a Good One.

There are several things that drive me crazy in my professional life and bad researchers are near the top of my list. Last week I had an extra-irritating researcher come to my archives and after my experience with him, I decided that I should write a post on bad researchers and how YOU can be a good researcher instead.

Things didn’t start off well with this researcher. I am a corporate historian, which means that I have a cubicle and share office space with a few hundred other people whose jobs are completely unrelated to my own. Other than the perfect set-up for professional isolation, this means that I don’t hold regular office hours in the archives because we don’t have a dedicated archives space; just cubicles and a few storage closets. When one of our staff members needs something, they usually will call or Email. Occasionally I have someone drop by my desk to ask a question, but our staff are pretty sensitive to each other’s workflow and will generally preface their drop-by question by “is this a good time?” Not so, the bad researcher.

Last week I was trying to finish a chapter for an upcoming book, and I was in my happy writing zone. Historians, you know this zone: the “my brain is 200 years away right now” zone. As I was mentally consumed with analyzing the disastrous flood of 1947, I noticed a shadow pass across my desk. Startled, I turned to find a stranger standing at the entrance to my cubicle. “Hi, I’m J,” he said, and he sat right down in my extra chair and propped his feet up on my desk. This stranger who had the audacity to sit down uninvited then told me that he’s an M Div student at an Eastern university and that he’s writing a research paper on the founder of my organization. J wanted me to tell him everything that I know about him. Right NOW.

It felt like he had pulled me across all of time and space. I scrambled to make the mental adjustment from being far away in 1947 to being able to verbalize some sort of answer to this stranger in 2014. Writers and artists – you know that it takes a few seconds to shift into being able to use your words after being deeply in your creative zone. After I successfully made this shift, I began the standard reference interview, and asked him about his paper and what kinds of source material he was familiar with.

“Oh, I didn’t want to read any source material. I just thought you could give me the scoop yourself,” he replied. I squinted at him and asked if he had read the biography on our founder, which is one of three standard texts that all of our PhD and MA researchers start out with before even thinking about contacting us here in the archives. “No, I don’t have time for that. My paper is due in two days. You just need to tell me about him.”

I cannot stand lazy researchers, especially those who are enrolled in academic programs. While I don’t mind to give our staff members a quick 10-minute summary of who are founder is and why the history of our organization matters to them, I feel like academic researchers are completely different creatures. After all, it’s their JOB to do their own original research. That’s how they are earning their diplomas. If a researcher doesn’t “feel like” reading a book or doing any actual work, I kind of want to scream.

I had a meeting that I needed to attend a few minutes later, so we agreed to set up an appointment the next day to talk about his subject and for him to look at some of our source material. I asked him to please read the biography that evening so could talk about any questions that he had after reading that.

The following morning he showed up an hour later than we had agreed upon. He said that he hadn’t felt like walking down to our bookstore to purchase the biography. He stuck a microphone in my face and said, “Just tell me everything that you know and that will be good enough.” So began one of the most awkward, irritating interviews that I have ever been part of. He was already somewhat familiar with the framework of our founder’s life, so he kept interrupting me to ask questions about random details. Random details that I don’t know off the top of my head but that are easily accessible in the biography. I kept telling him that he could find that information in the book, and he kept saying “Yeah, no time to read that, remember? My paper is due tonight,” as though it were my fault that he only had another 8 hours to research and write a 20-page paper. We finally finished our talk and I felt like he had ripped all of my teeth out of my head.

After he left, I made my intern promise me that if he ever visited another repository that he would be a good researcher. You want to be a good research too, right? Here’s how:

1) Good researchers do the proper legwork to become very familiar with their topic before contacting an archival repository. Use those skills that they’ve been teaching you in your graduate program to find the standard texts (interlibrary loan them to yourself or find them in a journal database if you have to), read them, and then decide what extra sources of information you’re going to need.

2) Good researchers call or Email ahead of time. For private repositories, this is an absolute must. This holds true even in public archives that are open to walk-ins. It is so helpful if the staff has a little bit of time to really think about your reference request so we can rack our brains to figure out what kinds of things you’re going to want to see. Calling ahead gives the staff time to pull the materials for you so that said materials are waiting when you arrive at your appointment. Also, many archivists are introverts who don’t like surprises or interruptions, so minimize the element of surprise for these dear people by letting them know you’re coming.

3) Good researchers read the material that their reference archivist recommends to them.

4) Good researchers interview the texts and sources, rather than expecting the archivist to sum everything up. At the same time, though, good researchers know how to ask questions of the archivist that will lead them to more information in the sources.

5) Good researchers make real friends with their archivists. You should know that archivists are generally friendly people who really love the subjects that they curate. I mean, where else on the planet are you going to find another person who knows as much as you do about that obscure dissertation topic? Make friends.

6) Good researchers send thank you notes to the archivists. When you arrive home from that week-long research trip to X Archives, send those gentle people a thank you note for all of the help that they gave you. I bet that they will pin it to their cubicle wall to help remind them why enduring all of the icky stuff at their jobs is actually worthwhile after all.

7) Good researchers thank their archivists in their thesis/dissertation acknowledgements. They really love that.

8) Good researchers will send copies of their thesis/dissertation to the archives that comprised large portions of their research. If your work is reputable and you did a good job, they will probably add your papers to their reference collections.

That’s it – now go forth and be a good researcher!