By Daniel Hubbard | January 16, 2013
There is a facet of research that nags at me every so often. The other day was one of those days.
Sometimes when we find something, we know exactly what it means. We can almost immediately claim that we understand it fairly well and if we are lucky and thinking clearly, we won’t need to eat those words very often. There are times, though, when my reaction to a document is a thought like, “This would be interesting if A or B is true.” It then becomes time to look for evidence for A and B. There might be no clear evidence for either. Perhaps it becomes apparent that if several other things are correct and there is no negative evidence to be found, then A is almost certainly true. A question about the relevance of a single document has branched, twisted, turned and contorted. It may be work toward a family tree but it has resulted in a grapevine of documents all leading back to that earlier find but without any clear interpretation.
By the time my thoughts return to that in initial document, the whole base of knowledge that I used to find it has changed. The direction of the research may have changed. And I still need to ask, “Is this document worth saving and recording citation information and filing and documenting the rationale that caused me to save it or is it too unlikely that it fits?” Often the answer is “maybe.”
Organizing in a Vacuum
If it is something that is worth saving, there is the question of how one should organize such information. Things are often organized by use. When the use is unknown, that scheme either fails or misleads. Woe be it to the genealogist who organizes their mysterious documents by creating shadowy people in their database.
With a large enough amount of data, organization isn’t a trivial problem either. It is a philosophical question whether or not information that can’t be found still qualifies as information. The word information seems to imply useability. Practically speaking, information that is so poorly organized that it can’t be found is the same thing as no information at all. All those mysterious little things that we pick up as we hunt need to be organized or they can never be of any use.
Unless you have infinite time, an infinite filing cabinet, an infinite hard drive and a way to organize it all, the documents and information you choose to keep matter. Keep too much and you spend time organizing the uninteresting and preparing for citations you will never make. You lose track of the interesting in all the rest. Keep too little and you miss important clues and fail to make connections. The more efficiently information can be gathered and organized the more you can keep and really use.
Welcome to No-Man’s-Land
Sometimes we can move quickly from document to person. A single document can take us back another generation. That step may turn out to be wrong but at the time of discovery, it was so overwhelmingly likely that hypothesizing its correctness then testing the hypothesis was the logical way to proceed. Other times that next step will be so perplexing that it is obviously a research project on its own. Then there is the case at hand, the no-man’s-land between near certainty and total mystery. It is a place that can shift quickly and unpredictably. While in that no-man’s-land there is always the possibility that something will quickly turn up to clarify yet at the same time there will be the growing suspicion that this particular problem will not go away easily.
Working in no-man’s-land is never easy. We don’t see either clear progress or a clear problem. Either of those can be a source for organizing work but neither is actually present. Learning more is obviously the only way to go but we need to do it without that context of a clear set of people and relationships or a clear and focused problem.
I like to put a folder called “Shoebox” or some such imprecise name in the most precise place it can be. You want the place you store such things to be imprecise rather than misleadingly precise or precisely wrong. The subtle part about working in no-man’s-land is avoiding organizing things based on unwarranted, subconscious assumptions. Anyone stuck on their line back from great-grandpa Shoebox should probably pick a different folder name.