I am researching the public lives of rural women in a small county in South Dakota during the frontier era, 1880-1920, as the topic of my master’s thesis in Public History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In an effort to effectively manage all research materials, I wrote a proposed methodology for managing the research process as my final project for a Digital History class in spring of 2014.
This blog will provide a forum for ongoing discussion of the research process and my attempt to manage it in a methodical manner. I’m hoping this method enhances the writing process by making it very easy to find and use primary resources collected during the research phase. In addition, by documenting relationships between sources, people and organizations, I expect to discover new connections and insights about the people and places I’m studying.
Aurora County is my home county and I’ve been systematically collecting information and writing about the history since 2009. I decided to write about the ‘public’ lives of women because very little is known about their activities outside the home. The county is located in eastern South Dakota between the James and Missouri Rivers in the lower third of the state. Its eastern border lies just on the 98th meridian, placing it in the transition zone between the the Prairie and the Great Plains. The population of this 713 square mile county is so small (highest population of 7,246 in 1920 – declining to 2,710 in 2010) and so agriculturally based, that no academic research has been conducted on the history of this area. I’m curious about these women and decided to make this the focus of my research.
My first research trip, after deciding upon my topic, was in April. While attending the Dakota History Conference as a presenter, I spent a day at the Center for Western Studies, Augustana College campus, Sioux Falls, SD, collecting information about a local church and reviewing Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) annual reports. I returned in May and June for two weeks locating primary materials at the Aurora County Historical Society, the Aurora County Court House, the South Dakota State Historical Society and South Dakota State Library. For some reports, economic and voting reports, I entered the information directly into a spreadsheet. For other information I paid for copies to be made. Now that I’m home, I need to organize the material so that I can find relevant information as quickly as possible when I start writing and to discover interesting relationships.
That’s why I’m attempting to process my research in a methodical manner using a written methodology and a digital tool called Zotero. Zotero is a database that allows the user to record all the information needed about a source (books, journal articles, newspapers, reports, etc.) and take notes. A great benefit of Zotero is that it can be used to generate bibliographies and citations of all types of sources with the click of a mouse. Warning, you still have to verify the information is correct. But once you’ve proofed it, you know it is correct every single time after that. The power of Zotero is the ability to link one source to another, to add keywords, to search and to create reports using any combination of metadata. With proper discipline, one could manage all their information in this one place. I plan to exploit the relationship feature to do something Zotero is not designed to do – and that is to document relationships between people, organizations and events. More about that in my next blog.