Tagged with "primary and secondary research"
The Joy of Primary Source Research Tags: research writing primary and secondary research

             

Japanese-American students dressed up as American Indians.  East San Pedro Grammar School, Terminal Island, Ca. Circa 1930, Courtesy of the of the Archives and Special Collection Department of the Los Angeles Unified School District

 

Fifteen years ago my mother took my siblings and me on a trip through Eastern Germany.  There we visited the estates and farms, townhouses and churches of her ancestors.  Relatives showed us documents their parents had carried declaring them “pure” and “uncontaminated” by non-Aryan blood.  We heard tales of harrowing attempts to cross over the wall and of the bleak, hopeless days when their wealth was confiscated and their children were denied an education due to their upper class background.

I returned home charged up with a zeal to research the past.  I discovered my husband’s lines had never been traced and I volunteered to do it.

The morning I stepped into the National Archives I tumbled into a world that would consume me for nearly a year.  The archives were located in the basement of a seven-story government building not far from my home in California.

I remember how I felt that first day.  After passing through the security check I stopped and surveyed the enormous room full of file cabinets, tables, and research stations. Muffled voices drifted toward me, muted by the industrial carpet and the solid earth pressing against the basement walls.  The tables were populated by people, their heads bent over the work in front of them, or sitting in front of the magnifying screens for the census records, slowly turning the crank to survey the rolls of microfilm.  The warm and musty fragrance of old paper, dry with age and full of promise engulfed me.  I felt cradled with the reassurance I was safe in this place, like a nurturing classroom full of kind teachers and endless days of discovery.  At the same time my pulse quickened with the promise of unearthing treasure.  Maybe I’d sort out the mystery of my husband’s bloodlines, a mystery created by his grandmother, who told her children they were Russian, then German, then Slavic, depending on which immigrants were most popular at the time.  Perhaps, like my father’s ancestors, I’d find some outlaws, trail blazers or cowboys. 

I did solve that mystery, and many others, including one which concerned his great-grandfather from Texas. A sharecropper and father of two, he’d mysteriously disappeared after the birth of his second son, never to be seen again.  After weeks of research and speculation, I followed up on a hunch and found him in the Iowa census records twenty years after he'd left Texas.  He’d re-married, raised two children, and was a respectable officer of the law.  I was so excited when I discovered him I exclaimed, “there you are, you son-of-a-bitch!” Then I looked up guiltily at the quiet researchers. But they just smiled and nodded their heads knowingly.   

It wasn’t until some years later that I understood the unfiltered joy and excitement I experienced that year was the result of doing primary source research. There's an element of magic stored in the old letters, photos and records; an energy I felt even through my white archival gloves. Sometimes I felt I consumed their stories, perhaps absorbed them is a better word. I absorbed their lives until they walked beside me in my world and I in theirs.  

Sometimes I even spoke to them, in admiration or surprise, or occasionally, in deep sympathy. 

Some years later my mother handed me a box given to her by my father's mother. It was full of photos taken and journals written by my grandmother during her teaching years in the nineteen twenties, thirties and forties. When World War II began the school and the town were bulldozed and the families put into concentration camps.  The contents of the box were the only school records that survived.

It took me another year to research and write a book about the school and its community of Japanese-Americans.  The research took me to glorious places that set my blood pumping and my hands shaking with anticipation.  One of my favorite places was the Los Angeles School District Archives, three floors crammed with books and photos, carousal horses from playgrounds and carved desks and pianos.  Barely visited, according to the overworked archivist.  I spent weeks there, seated on the floor, reading my way through the past and using all of my change on the copy machine.

I also traveled to the homes of the children who’d attended the school and had known my grandmother.  Now in their eighties and nineties, they were delighted to share their few photos and many memories with me, watching with fascination as I hooked up my computer and scanner and made copies.

I derived much satisfaction when I connected the dots between my archive research and their stories.  One of the more curious mysteries was solved one day as I played my telephone messages.  I’d been puzzled over old letters written between the school and the town’s fire station.  With polite but firm words, the school requested the station to move locations from several blocks down to somewhere more distant.  In equally polite terms, the station replied they would not.  I understood the sirens might be distracting to the students, but surely it could not warrant the persistence of the school to relocate it.  Then one day I got a phone message from an eighty-nine year old who had been a previous student.  I’d visited him the day before for an interview, and he’d shared wonderful stories of living on the island.

His quavering voice was full of amusement when I played his message.  “Mrs. Shelton, I forgot to tell you about something we did that used to drive your grandmother crazy.  Whenever the fire truck came by the school, us boys would jump out of the classroom window and run after it.  Sometimes we wouldn’t be back until lunch time!”

My happy place is doing primary research.  The only reason I have not returned to it is because once I begin, everything else fades away, and the research requires my full-time attention. It is a place of such joy and anticipation that it teeters on that precarious line between innocent happiness and addiction.

An addiction I hope to indulge in again, once I have the time to feed it!

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