Newer is Not Always Better: Skepticism in Your Research

I’m going to be honest, this post is inspired by the latest redesign on a social media site I use—LinkedIn. Now LinkedIn is not exactly the sexiest, coolest social media site on the net. But since I do a lot of job searching and networking, LinkedIn is a site that I use a lot. And I kinda hate the new format.

I hate on redesigns a lot for a couple of reasons: number one, I’m a curmudgeon that dislikes change—I mean, what’s wrong with the old format? Number two, it takes time and effort to understand the new design and where everything is located—time that the redesign promised to save users by supposedly making the site “more intuitive.” More intuitive? Last time I checked the human brain didn’t come with a user interface and notifications so how can a website claim that it’s being more intuitive—we’re not instinctually primed for computer usage (unless we’re actually living in the Matrix and being controlled by The Machine!)

And number three (again, this is my personal belief), I think redesigns are often motivated by factors other than user/customers’ desires. Redesigns are a way for a website, company, organization, etc. to reflect their changing values and focus; it’s also a way to stay competitive in a world flooded with a hundreds of thousands of web pages all competing for people’s attention. Stay relevant or die in other words, and a redesign is an attempt to keep users engaged. That’s not a bad thing, but don’t frame the change as this fun, cool thing that users demanded.  We don’t demand anything but a quicker loading time for the page.

Newer is not always better. Change is not always great. Change does not equal progress. And “progress” is not always good.

Now you might be thinking, ‘what a Luddite, get with the times. Adapt or die.’

And maybe you’re right, adapting to change is part of life, and especially in the relentless pace of change we face today, being adaptable is essential to survival. But what I’m trying to get at is for you to be more conscious and critical of the changes that happen. Part of being a good researcher is to question all the information you come across. Evaluating your discoveries from a detached (and skeptical) perspective makes you think more deeply about what you found. Asking questions and challenging assumptions is what leads to new revelations. Don’t accept the given and don’t accept what you see at face value, there’s another angle from which to evaluate that information.

If you’re in the humanities you might be familiar with different theoretical perspectives to analyze a subject (like Marxist theory, Feminist theory, Postmodernism, Social Constructivist theory, Critical Race theory, Psychoanalytic theory, and on and on), which are useful in critically evaluating information. I encourage you to use some of those theoretical frameworks to think about the information you find, and to use more than one theory—which deepens your analysis by giving you multiple viewpoints in which to understand information. If you aren’t familiar with some of those theories do a little research on them—I guarantee that they will enrich your research process.

Question everything. Especially change. As a historian, I’m kind of obsessed with change. A change or shift will spark questions about why that change occurred, why the change happened at that particular time, what fueled the changes, and the consequences of that change. When you’re investigating something, those questions will keep you thinking and force you to confront something you might ordinarily take as a given.

Continue reading “Newer is Not Always Better: Skepticism in Your Research”

Pokémon and Primary Sources: Researching Popular Culture

While research can take many forms, my focus and interest is scholarly research; research that involves an in-depth exploration of a topic utilizing academic, peer-reviewed articles and books. Depending on the field you’re working in, you will probably draw on other, non-academic sources of information. In literature you’d use poems, stories, and novels. One of the great things about historical research is the wide variety of sources you can draw from to research a topic—from songs to personal letters, to films and paintings, you can use almost anything to study your subject. Research items are divided into two categories: primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are materials created by people or groups who were participants or witnesses to a particular event, movement, or time period. Secondary sources are created using primary sources, they are typically books and articles written by individuals who are not witnesses/participants to the time period in question. A primary source could be a letter written by an activist during the Civil Rights Movement, a secondary source would be the book written 50 years later using the information learned from that letter.

Scholarly research gets tricky when you want to do an academic study of a topic related to modern popular culture or popular media. Finding an academic article on something like….Pokémon Go for example, isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t know where to look. If you researched something like superheroes there would be a wealth of scholarly, peer-reviewed books and articles on the subject—historians, social scientists, anthropologists, even literary scholars have delved into this topic (can’t imagine why, I guess people like it). Something more obscure, or very new, such as the popular game that debuted last year, Pokémon Go, might be harder to find academic works written on the topic. This is where primary sources become especially important.

Now wait, you might say, I thought primary sources were created by people from the particular time period that’s being studied. How can I use primary sources to study something from modern popular culture? It’s not history yet!

That’s true, but the same principle still applies. Going back to the Pokémon Go example, I could use YouTube videos made by a Pokémon Go player as a primary source to analyze it. Newspaper articles, personal blogs, the game’s website, reviews of the game, or a Tumblr or Facebook page dedicated to Pokémon Go could work as a primary source. I could even play the game myself and use my experience as a source of information. Physical objects can serve as a source, the options are endless.

But now what? What do I do with all these primary sources?

Well, if you’ve been lucky you might have found a scholarly work dissecting your popular culture/media topic, in which case, you have something to guide you and spark ideas for your own analysis of the primary sources. A few years ago for example I wrote a research paper comparing the film Defiance with the book it was based on, a sociological study by Nechama Tec also called Defiance. I had no academic articles on the film, only scholarly sources on the Holocaust and general information on analyzing film. My primary sources were the film and the book I was comparing it to—I didn’t have any scholarly articles to guide my analysis of the primary sources.

In the event that you don’t have any secondary sources to help your research, you have lean more heavily on your own analysis of the primary sources, which is sometimes scary, not knowing if you’re “reading” the sources in the right way. But if you’re a historian, or working in any humanities field for that matter, you’ll have to rely on your own analytical skills to draw conclusions using primary sources.

And if you’re still struggling on how to read your primary source for information, here are few questions to start you out:

  • Who made it?
  • Why did this person or group make it?
  • What is it? (poem, novel, song, poster, magazine, website, video, art, etc.)
  • What is it made of and how was it made? How do the materials and the format of this source impact its purpose?
  • Was this source aimed at a particular audience? Who is that audience?
  • When was it made? How does the date/time period shed light on its purpose and how it was created?

Continue reading “Pokémon and Primary Sources: Researching Popular Culture”

Ask Before You Search: Finding Answers to the Big Questions

Everything I’ve written about research up to now has been related to historical research that aims to discover facts and hard evidence. In some ways that sort of research is easy; you have a clear goal and direction, and your success (i.e. the answer to your questions) is obvious. But there’s also the research that has a deeper meaning—one with muddled origins that’s about who you are and who you want to be, a search that seeks to discover meaning when you feel meaningless.

Now all that sounds very existential and nonsensical, you might argue, but those searches are the ones that really matter—it might be a search to discover your ancestry, a lost-lost relative, a friend you lost touch with, or even a job search. Maybe it’s a search to finally find the answer to life’s biggest questions; maybe it’s a search for a simple answer that has big implications for your life. Whatever it may be, that search means more to you than the just a fact-check.

So what does that mean, really? When you’re searching for the answers to life’s biggest questions where do you turn to?

If you’re like most people you look to the fastest and most convenient source of information, the internet. Perhaps Siri’s detached voice is your key to tough questions. A few words typed into the Google search bar reveals just how much we rely on the internet to answer the unanswerable questions—type in “how to” and a top search result is “how to find yourself!”

Even as we wait for the magic answer to be revealed, we know deep down that Google and the most sophisticated search tools in the world don’t have the right answers. It’s inevitable that we’ll be disappointed and we know it, yet we still reach for the quicker option instead of taking the time to search deeper. You can find amazing things online; whether it’s a resource, a network of likeminded people, information, or whatever, but all of these things can only be found if you a clear question  in the first place. The internet can’t provide all the answers, or the answer to the abstract and deep questions in our lives. It’s a collection of information, and we have to be prepared to sift through it all to find what we want, that’s why it’s essential to know what you’re looking for before you start—or at least to begin with a specific question and intention that will lead you to the right information, otherwise, we’ll get lost in a spiral of Wikipedia pages and Facebook posts and a stranger’s random blog, like mine for instance 😉 If we’re using the internet to help us solve a problem, we need to be prepared to put the disparate pieces together to create a coherent answer to our complex question.

Trust yourself to ponder your own questions before you turn to a cacophony of other people’s answers, maybe you’ll discover something, or maybe you’ll just stare at a stain on your chair for ten minutes and think of nothing, but that’s okay, better to try and fail than never discover the insides of your own mind. Pose the question to yourself first. I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to looking to the internet for my solutions, and it’s hard, it’s easier to accept someone else’s advice than try out my own. But I’m trying.

Back to Basics, Or, Don’t be Afraid of the Library

Although the internet, and internet-based research, has been around for a relatively short time, it’s hard to remember a time when everyone didn’t use the internet to learn. Today, we turn to our favorite search engine (probably Google) to answer every question and dilemma, from trivia like when the Battle of Hastings occurred, to what you should wear on a job interview, or what foods help you sleep better. While the internet can provide fast, if conflicting answers, sometimes taking your research offline is better. In another post I’ll go into the benefits of consulting experts for answers, but today I want to talk about utilizing books for your research.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m in the process of writing a second draft of my young adult (YA) supernatural fiction novel. The story takes place in present-day Colorado, but a big part of the backstory deals with Colorado’s silver mining boom in the late nineteenth century. As a historian, consulting books should be second nature, but even I’ve drifted from that and turned to the internet for answers. Now there’s nothing wrong with using the internet for research, but at some point you should take it offline, especially if it’s a big project.

The internet can be a great start, but it’s only one component of the research process.

In my research on silver mining, I’ve found some good general information online. Dates and places, some great maps of mining areas in Colorado, interesting photographs; I’ve even discovered some good places to search for primary sources (a text, photo/picture, poster, movie, etc. produced during the time period that the researcher is studying) on silver mining and Colorado’s early years. But I knew I was missing crucial details that would provide a more complete picture of daily life in late nineteenth-century Colorado. I had a framework, but the details of the picture were fuzzy, and any good story relies on vivid details to create settings that feels true-to-life.

So I went to the library. I got a few books on silver mining in Colorado and started reading. Online sources, in particular websites, blog posts, etc. tend to be shorter and more focused—readers expect things to be short and to-the-point. Books however have the time to go into more depth and detail. Already I’ve learned a lot more details about mining than I ever learned from the websites I’ve studied. Not only do books have the advantage of more information and details on a subject, but books are peer-reviewed materials, meaning that other experts on the subject have reviewed the information for accuracy. That is one of the biggest advantages books (and peer-reviewed journals) have over other online material. You have to be more careful and do a lot more work to figure out if a website provides accurate, reliable information—and sometimes it’s impossible to authenticate the information and the author’s credentials. With books on the other hand you know right away who the author is, and who published the book, you can verify the material—and when you’re doing research, that’s the most important thing.

Photo Source:

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the internet is infallible and all-knowing. It’s not. Just because you read it online doesn’t make it true, and just because you can’t find something online doesn’t mean the information doesn’t exist. It’s a collection of information produced by people—and not all of them are trained or certified experts. Anyone can put something online, that’s why wikipedia should be read with a huge grain of salt, if at all. So if you want to do some real research, start online, but expand your horizons—don’t disdain the books. It has a lot more than you think.

Books on Silver Mining in Colorado:

Leyendecker, Liston E., Bradley, Christine A., and Duane A. Smith. The Rise of the Silver Queen: Georgetown, Colorado, 1859-1896. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2005.

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. Aspen: The History of a Silver Mining Town 1879-1893. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000.

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

There’s a lot of good to be said about using the internet for research; you have access to endless amounts of information, it’s easy to investigate related topics, you digest information through different mediums (i.e. videos, text, images, audio, etc.), and best of all, all this information is literally at your fingertips. It’s hard to beat those benefits, and it’s hard to imagine that less than 10 years ago internet-based research was considered dubious at best. Back then, teachers and professors reminded me to question everything I found online and put that information through rigorous tests to determine its reliability.

Fast-forward a few years and it’s hard to even remember not relying on the internet for information. Much of the research I do now relies on the internet, or at least begins with a search on the internet. Although it’s a lot easier to find accurate, quality information online, we still need to evaluate what we find online for accuracy, and be aware of the author’s perspective.

Anyone can post information online, and while that fact is one of the beauties of the internet, it also creates a problem—the information is not peer-reviewed, meaning that other experts on the subject did not evaluate the material for accuracy or quality. That’s not to say that you won’t find peer-reviewed work online, databases for instance contain academic, peer-reviewed articles; but what you find online has to be measured against other information to determine quality. The peer-reviewed issue is one of the biggest reasons why Wikipedia is not a good source for formal research, I myself have used wiki to learn some basic facts, but I try to avoid it completely because it’s too tempting to believe the information.

There’s no guarantee that what you find online will be perfectly accurate, but there are a few things to look for that suggest quality, accurate, more objective information (more on objectivity later). Sites that end with .edu are associated with a particular university, it’s a good indicator of quality. Sites ending with .gov are created by a government agency, meaning that the information is generally more objective, and has been reviewed by other experts. Sites that end with .org are generated by an organization, this can be a good thing, but you also need to think about that organization—what does it do, what are that organization’s values and ideas? Depending on what you’re researching, and how you plan on using that information, a .org site could be great, or it could be terrible. An organization is an extremely broad term—you just need to think about what that organization stands for and what its reputation is. You can often find information about the group by checking the “about us” page if available, or see the very bottom of the webpage.

Then there’s .com sites, a category which most websites fall under. Personally, I find these sites much harder to trust because there’s no way to verify the reliability of author. Blogs, like the one you’re reading right now, should always be read with a grain of salt. I would say the same for a lot of the information you find online. Every writer, company, group, etc. has a particular perspective, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but you should consider who the “author” is and what are their ideas and values? What do they believe? Are they connected to or affiliated with anything? What causes do they care about? You can often find the answer to that last question by looking at a person or group’s social media—if you want to creep on them of course.

All of this depends however on the kind of research you’re doing and what you’ll need it for. If you’re doing research on the online habits of pet owners a personal blog might be a great source to tell you about that topic. It all depends on what you need and what you’re using it for. The most important advice to stay true is the author’s perspective—who are they? What are their values and beliefs? And why did this person write this information?

On another note, search engines like Google, are great for sifting through lots of information, but you have to remember that its search capabilities are based on algorithms determined by a person. It’s not an unbiased reflection of the information available online, it searches for key words and phrases which means that good, relevant information may not show up in the results if you don’t use the “right” search words. And many times certain sites are given preference because of advertising, or because of common search habits. Not finding something does not mean it doesn’t exist. In which case you might need to try different terms, or try a different method of research, I’ll write about that in the next post.

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

But don’t take my word for it. You reader, know little about me. I keep myself private online because I’m concerned about my privacy—that’s a whole other subject. But just so you know, I received both my undergraduate and graduate degree in history. I’ve taught writing and history, I’ve worked in art and history museums, I love reading and writing fantasy and science fiction. That’s probably not enough to make you trust my information, but I encourage you to verify what I’ve said here.


Here’s some other tips about online research:

On search engine results and bias:

Too Much of a Good Thing, Or, It All Comes Back to Procrastination

This week on the research blog, I’m talking about how to tell if you’re doing too much research. Besides being a historian, I coach people on their writing. I had a student this week struggling with writing a literature review—which involves summarizing the current research on a particular topic. One of the questions this student asked was “how do I know that I have enough research?”

My answer was that you can never have too much. But in reality, we don’t have an endless amount of time to conduct research, we have to cut it off at some point. Research is a never-ending, time-consuming process. As the American economist Thorstein Veblen said:

The outcome of any serious research can only be to make 2 questions grow where only one grew before.

A little research multiplies the questions you had at the beginning of the process. It’s interesting, but you can easily spend too much time researching and not enough time writing, or applying that research. So how do you know when you’re finished researching?

The first thing to keep in mind is that research is an ongoing process. You don’t need to relegate it to one part of you project, you will go back to research throughout your project. Since research is ongoing, it takes the pressure off you to have it “finished” before you move on to the next stage. If you are stuck in your writing, doing a little more research can give you ideas and direction, then you can move back into the writing process.

You should also figure out why you are researching in the first place. I always come up with new questions during my research and it’s easy to forget what I needed to learn in the first place. Go back to what your original questions was. Sometimes I fall into the trap of using research to procrastinate on my writing—I give the excuse that it’s “productive” procrastination. And yes, I am learning relevant information during my procrastination research, but it can also reflect the anxiety you feel about working on the writing itself. Remember what you need out of the research, and only you have that, get to writing. Trust yourself, you’re a lot more prepared than you think.

And what if you aren’t ready to write? When I’m stuck on the writing, I like to go back to researching—it not only gets me in the right mindset to write, but it gives me more ideas to work with. I make a new list of questions I have after the research and type up, or write out, a few notes I have after my research. The act of writing gets me primed to work again.

So get to writing, too much research can be a bad thing. Start by writing out what you learned from the research, then write!

More about Thorstein Veblen, the man behind the idea of “conspicuous consumption”

On Not Reinventing the Wheel, Or, It’s Okay to Use the Road More-Traveled By

Last week I was researching exhibition sponsors for the museum I just started working at. I had no idea where to begin so I decided to work backwards by researching other museums in the area, and checking their websites to find what organizations had sponsored their exhibitions. That tactic might sound very unoriginal, after all, wouldn’t it be better to do it yourself?

Part of the joy and excitement of research derives also from the idea that we’re uncovering something new, learning things and making connections between ideas that are completely unique. You start to think that the information you found and the new ideas you develop are life-changing, earth-shattering stuff.  When you research you get the feeling that you’re a pioneer, that you’re particularly clever and brilliant for doing what we’re doing.

Well, you’re not.

Sorry to be so blunt. But no matter what you’re investigating, you’re work is connected to and building upon the work of many others.

In 1675, Sir Isaac Newton, (physicist, astronomer, mathematician, laws of gravity guy, etc. etc.) wrote in a letter to scientist Robert Hooke:

“If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Some speculate that Newton was making a subtle dig at Hooke’s height, but what’s interesting about Newton’s statement is that he probably modified/borrowed the phrase from thinkers from the Middle Ages.

The point Newton was trying to make however was that our work is never done in isolation, our discoveries in the research process are not independent of what came before us, and that’s okay. Especially in the earlier stages of research I need to remind myself that I don’t need to reinvent the wheel, it’s okay to walk a path someone else forged for the time being. Follow the research/work of someone else more advanced because not only will you learn a lot, but you can avoid a lot of pitfalls.

What’s more, getting familiar with the major researchers and their research/ideas/debates of the field you’re studying can help you distinguish your own work from their work. I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking I’ve come up with something insightful and new but I’m later disappointed to find that it’s already been discovered or thought of. It’s humbling, and sometimes comforting to realize that your ideas are not as original as you thought. You’re not alone in your conclusions, which means that you can look to those “giants” in your field to develop your own unique project. After all, how can I create something original if I have no idea of the work done before me?

In the academic world, it’s essential to be aware of the debates and ideas that preceded your work (often called a literature review). When you’re trying to find information or learn something, it helps to look at the research and sources someone else used for their work; check their citations. The whole point of citations is for readers to check those other sources.

When you come across a great resource, read the articles, books, etc. that the author refers to in their work. I guarantee that brilliant thinker didn’t come up with their conclusions and theories in a vacuum.

On Sir Isaac Newton:

On Not Writing What You Know: Researching Place

I haven’t posted anything in over two weeks, I’ve been preoccupied with a new job I’m starting soon (yea!) and arranging the logistics has been time-consuming. But that doesn’t mean I gave up writing or researching for my YA supernatural novel. During the editing process I realized that I needed a more detailed explanation of the small-town Colorado setting where the story takes place. Of course, the town in my novel is a fictional place, but that doesn’t mean I can fudge the details. As a reader, a detailed and fully-realized setting goes a long way in making the story believable—a setting structures the plot and creates a frame of reference for the characters’ actions.

So what do you do when you’re conducting research on a place? What do you need to look for? What do you need to find out about a place when you’re writing about it? The goal of setting research is to make sure you can capture the tone and character of a location, the mundane details of what it’s like to live there so that the reader feels like they are living inside your story.

Ideally you would visit or live in the location yourself. You would know what it feels like and looks like when it rains. The smells of the place, what the air feels like before a storm. The colors, and the sounds a person would hear. How the ground feels beneath a person’s feet. What the sky looks like, the terrain, the physical backdrop of the place. What the people wear, and what natural or man-made elements a resident of that place would encounter in their daily life. But what if I’ve never been to there? What if I can’t visit that place?

If you’re following that old writing adage,

“write what you know”

Mark_twain 1884
Mark Twain (1884)

–a quote typically attributed to Mark Twain, you might shrug and give up on the story. I’ve never liked that advice—it’s limiting and leaves no space for imagination or education. If people only wrote what they knew we’d have very few books. When your setting is a place you’ve never been—or in the case of a historical novel or something fantasy or science fiction-related, a place that’s impossible to visit, you have to research and invent. You miss out on the sensory details that bring a story to life.

When it comes to researching place, you have to get more creative than just reading a wikipedia article. A list of facts about a location’s climate, terrain, flora, fauna, architecture, and street names will get you started but can’t convey a sense of place.

So what do I do?
For me, understanding the location of my story is a daunting task. I’ve never visited Colorado and the place where I live is so different from that area that I was overwhelmed on how to start. I started by reading up on the history of the location, in particular the silver boom in Colorado during the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s that brought floods of settlers eager to capitalize on the boom.

aspen 1898-1905
Colorado. Aspen Silver Mines (1898-1905) Detroit Photographic Co. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Starting with the historical background of a place is useful because it gives you insight into the character of a location and explains the architecture and “look” of the place. I also looked into the climate, weather, and terrain of the area. The Weather Channel website gives great info as well as weather maps. Learning about the local flora and fauna can also be helpful. Photos of the place—both past and present give you a visual snapshot of the place, but can’t tell you much about the sensory experience of a place. Maps—whether it’s a terrain map, climate map, street map, or a map of other information can give more of a sense of the location than just a picture—you get a sense of scale and the layout—I like to go a step further and draw my own map to give myself a stronger feel of the place.

Perhaps the most useful bit of research would be to interview someone who’s lived in or visited the place—ask them details that you won’t easily find through other research methods—like what the place smells like, the sounds you hear, the people, the tone of the location.

Again, making sense of all this information comes down to imagination. Combining the information collected and making a mental leap in order to use what you do know to understand what you don’t. You color in the details by making educated guesses using what you learned and what you know. My book opens with a rainstorm, and while I haven’t experienced a Colorado rain I know what it feels like to get caught in a storm, so used the weather and climate details I collected and interpreted them using my personal experience to describe the physical sensations of being left out in a storm.

denver and rio grande railway 1881 large
Map of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway lines in Colorado (1881)–rail lines in black. Credit: S.W. Eccles and Denver and Rio Grande Railway Co., Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

In a way, historians have to do the same thing. There’s no possible way you can know everything about past events, persons, or places. Depending on what you study, there’s a lot of gaps in the research and a good historian is able to draw a narrative of how something happened using the information—the “clues” that she has. Historians interpret the information that’s available—what we accept as historical truth—the narrative of history–is not something transcribed verbatim from the materials of the past. The historical “truth” is something historians need to tease out from the “stuff” of the past—there’s a reason it’s called history, because the bald facts are nothing without the structure of story to make it all make sense. Researching place for a novel is the same way, you can collect the facts—but it means nothing until you interpret it to make a narrative.

Notes and Further Reading:

Believe it or not, Aspen, CO (yes, the popular ski destination, Aspen) was a silver boom town in the 1880s:

Photo Credit for Map: The map also shows major mining areas (coal, gold, silver) in Colorado

Pamphlet put out by the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1879 detailing the particulars of mining in the silver boom town of Leadville, CO:



Hairy Problems: Distance and the Personal in Research

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m completing a supernatural-themed YA novel. This week I was reworking some plot points and looked into hair jewelry as part of a subplot. Hair jewelry was a form of hair work, a popular and fashionable 19th century tradition that involved working human hair into jewelry and wreaths. In addition to weaving and braiding hair for jewelry, family members, lovers, and friends would often exchange locks of hair as an intimate, tangible token of their affection. These locks of hair might be saved in an album or secured within a brooch or ring.

Below is an image of a Union soldier in a locket, the chain is made from braided hair (1861-65), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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Today we might call hair work gross and morbid, some articles that discuss hair jewelry like to emphasize the fact that hair jewelry and other hair work was made from the hair of dead people (ooh scary). And yes, hair work was often associated with funerary practices in the 19th century. Locks of hair from a deceased loved one could be worked into a hair wreath that would be mounted into a frame and displayed in the home as a memorial wreath; sometimes the hair would be combined with hair from other family members to make a family wreath. You can view an entire catalog of hair work designs through the Library of Congress website: Another common practice was using the hair to make jewelry that could be worn as a mourning piece.

Depending on what you research, you’re likely to stumble across something that you’ll find bizarre, disgusting, or distasteful. It’s easy to be shocked or repulsed by what you find, but at the risk of sounding cliché it’s essential to keep an open mind. Staying open to learn and understand doesn’t mean you have to agree with or condone the idea/practice/thing in question. Completely abandoning our own viewpoint and ideas isn’t always possible, nor is it advisable in some cases. But keeping an open mind in your research is more about imagining life from a different perspective. Einstein said that “imagination is the highest form of research,” and picturing that “strange” thing from the angle of the people who lived it is the only way you can try to understand how that idea or practice existed at all.

On one hand, research requires detachment. “Researcher” implies distance from the subject so that you can provide a supposedly objective analysis. But when you’re doing historical research (as well as research in other fields like anthropology), getting up close and personal is necessary to really understand the underlying motives and beliefs.

Hair Work behind frame (1850-60), Wisconsin Historical Museum. Photo Credit: Daderot

When trying to explain the popularity of hair jewelry and hair work, you should keep in mind the character of 19th century American popular culture. Hair work reflected the sentimentality and sincerity of this era; death was also a much more common experience. Items made the hair of a lost loved one was a tangible way to remember and stay connected to the person. Mark Campbell’s Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work (1867) provided detailed descriptions of different hair work techniques, his words in the preface sum it up:


Persons wishing to preserve and weave into lasting mementos, the hair of a deceased father, mother, sister, brother, or child, can also enjoy the inexpressible advantage and satisfaction of knowing that the material of their handiwork is the actual hair of the ‘loved and again.’

As you continue to research, the gap between yourself and your subject lessens. You spend enough time with something you begin to feel like it’s a part of you—you understand it better and can examine it on its own terms.

References and More Information:

You can read more about hair work and hair jewelry here:

See more examples of hair jewelry (and even purchase some pieces):

And check out the entire manual on Campbell’s hair work:

Photo source–Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with saber and revolver in locket with chain of braided hair:

What to Leave Out and What to Include: Imagination in Research

Last week I wrote about some sources I’m using for the children’s historical fiction book I’m working on. I’m in the process of editing a YA (young adult) novel I just completed. It’s a small town-supernatural story set in Colorado and I’m working on in-depth character development.

The characters I am working on originally lived in the Pale of Settlement before they came to the United States in the 19th century. I needed to do look into some information however to get the details right, specifically the dates.

Pale of Settlement (in red), 1905

The Pale of Settlement was the area in imperial Russia where Jews were permitted to live. Established in 1791, the Pale, as it came to be called in English, was the only area in Russia where Jews were allowed to permanently settle. Empress of Russia Catherine the Great (1762-96) created the Pale after Russia absorbed large numbers of Jews from The Partition of Poland. In 1772, Russia, Austria, and Prussia took advantage of Poland’s internal weaknesses and partitioned the country between them. Poland underwent three partitions (1772, 1793, and 1795), thus effectively eliminating Poland as a political entity until after the end of WWI. The new Jewish populations in Russia stirred up long-standing anti-Semitism, Russian Empress Catherine decided then to restrict Jews to the areas just annexed from Poland in order to solve complaints against the Jews. Over the course of the 19th century, Jews were increasingly restricted from life outside the Pale, and even within the Pale, Jews were barred from living in certain areas.

I wanted to go further with this train of thought, but I didn’t need to for my story. It’s easy to go overboard when you research, especially when you’re not sure what you want to use and what will be left out.

Another Train of Thought…

For another character, I need to do a lot more research to figure out the details of his backstory. This character, let’s call him P. for now, was born and raised in Mexico and fought in the Mexican-American War (1846-48) as a young man. I wanted to figure out the most likely setting for this character and what he would have done during the war. Finding more information about the experience of the war, especially from the Mexican point of view has been very difficult. I wanted to look into some Spanish language sources to get a better picture of what the war was like from the perspective of Mexico—which meant some translation work, but it also meant that I found something beside the American experience and perspective of the war.

After a lot of digging and some translating, I found a great story that solved the dilemma of what my character was up to during the war. In September 1847, American General Winfield Scott was close to capturing the Mexican capital, Mexico City. El Castillo de

Chapultepec Castle
The Military College of Chapultepec (1847), Lithograph by N. Currier, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Chapultepec—or Chapultepec Castle, provided one of the last defenses for the city against the American troops. Before the war Castillo de Chapultepec housed a military college and the young cadets were pressed into service during the war. Around 200 of these cadets along with over 600 soldiers fought in the Battle of Chapultepec against the Americans in September 12-13th. Eventually Mexican General Nicholas Bravo ordered the troops to retreat, but six young cadets refused to leave their post and continued to fight, perishing in the battle. The Los Niños Héroes are celebrated today in Mexico as heroes and a monument was created to honor them at Chapultepec Hill.

My character—P. isn’t one of the Los Niños Héroes, but I decided to make him one of young cadets that defended Chapultepec in the war. I don’t plan on giving a full explanation of

Chapultepec Monument
Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, Monument to the Boy Heroes

the entire complicated backstory for my character in the final edit for my book. Much of what you research for a paper, article, or book never ends up in the final product. There’s too much to include, and cramming everything you learned through your research would be artificial and get in the way of the story or the paper you’re trying to write. The purpose of the research when you’re writing a story is to use real-world knowledge to develop the lives of your characters and the world they live in so that they seem as believable as possible. All the character details and backstory I create won’t end up in the final story—and they shouldn’t. When you meet a person for the first time, you don’t learn their entire history at once, but that personal history still shapes their actions and interactions. It’s the same for fictional characters. Just because the research you found can’t work in your story or paper, doesn’t mean that the information is useless, everything you learn informs what you write and allows you to create an authentic character and setting. The information you learn is not to be copied verbatim into your story, but adapted to fit the needs of the story, as Albert Einstein once said:


 Imagination is the highest form of research.


So use your imagination to fill the gaps between the research and the story. See you next week!

Check out for more information

The Pale of Settlement:

The Center for Jewish History:

The Mexican-American War:

Sources from the War:

Los Niños Héroes:

Lithograph of Chapultepec Castle: