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A Guide to...Local History: Worcester & Beyond

Research Strategies

General Research Strategies:

 

Begin your research early. Well-done research is an iterative process; leave yourself time for this process to occur! This has the added benefit of extending your resources to excellent sources which may take longer to locate.

 

Be efficient. Use the strategies we will discuss together and presented on this guide (such as: choosing appropriate and multiple research tools; making use of advanced search features; thoughtful choice of keywords; following your sources) to conduct your research in a targeted, effective and efficient manner. 

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Leave plenty of time to read and understand your sources. This is especially true for primary sources, which may take longer to process (or read, if scans of original handwritten documents). 

 

Ask for help as needed. Your research librarians are available to assist you -- it's literally our job! Sometimes this may mean making a research appointment; other times, a quick e-mail conversation will suffice. 


Take notes as you go. As you're weaving in and out of multiple sources, it can be tempting to skip the notetaking. Don't! -- over the course of a long research process, you are not as likely to retain that perfect keyword search or ideal URL as you might think, and browser history/cookies can expire. Taking the time to document your strategies and the sources you find will make it much easier to reconstruct your findings into a final product. 


Choosing the Right Search Tool:

In order to choose an appropriate database, you should consider your research needs. What do you need at this point in time? Are you still becoming familiar with your topic, or are you trying to fill specific gaps? 

Always consider the limitations of your topic. For example, if you need property records, you won't get far searching in a newspaper collection! When selecting a research tool, you should try to identify one that matches your topic based on...

Chronology, topic, geography or genre

For example, if you are looking for local news reports on the construction of the Kennedy Expressway, not just any tool will do! You need a resource that: 

  1. Provides access to newspapers; 
  2. Includes resources published in Boston;
  3. Cover the period approx. 1950s-1990s.

Not sure where to start? Consult a librarian!

Searching in Historical Sources: 

Looking for historical sources is a bit different than searching for academic articles -- here are some pro-tips! 

Keywords: 

When searching for primary sources, think carefully about the vocabulary you are using.

  • Remember that the names we use in hindsight to describe historical events (for example, "World War I"), might not have been used at the time. 
  • Consider and look for other 'quirks' of the historical language. You might find that words are used to describe items, places or groups of people which we no longer use today. 
  • Don't forget to consider, for example, the renaming of streets and other changes over time. 

  You may want to use the worksheet below to help you brainstorm and organize your research for primary sources: 

Browsing:

Some research tools for historical sources lend themselves easily to precise searching; many do not.  Commit to taking plenty of time with your sources and browsing through lists of results, even if what you're looking for doesn't rise immediately to the top. It may appear further down, or there may be other clues in your result that can help you correct your search in the right direction. Likewise, what you are looking for may be present but not immediately apparent -- that blurb about the shop you're researching, for instance, could be buried at the bottom of a vaguely-titled newspaper article covering many pieces of local news. 

Because the phrasing (and digital scanning) of historical records is so variable, it's often more effective to keep your search simple, sort by date order, and let your own eyes take you the rest of the way! 

Accounting for Errors:

Many historical sources, especially census records, birth/death records, etc. where the information was self-reported, have errors or inconsistencies in them. The person providing the information may not have known the correct details, or the person taking down the information may have misheard or misunderstood them. Our job is to do our best to reconcile as much as information as we are able to find, to attempt to reconstruct an accurate picture of the place or scenario we are researching. 

Additionally, we have to account for the wonder of computers! Even if a name was spelled correctly on the original record, the process that made it keyword searchable by computer, may have transferred that information incorrectly. So when searching for names -- whether of people, streets, or businesses -- try spelling variants, and be open to checking any records that are not-quite-right but could still be the thing you're looking for. 

Using a tool for name-based research like HeritageQuest or FamilySearch? The search instructions for these tools typically include special techniques that you can use to make sure misspellings and alternate spellings are included in your results. Ask me for more!