There are many approaches to Doing Research for the Oakland Wiki; none is ‘right’, but we can probably all learn something from each other’s techniques.
Let me begin with a quote from Lois Leveen in a recent article in The Atlantic:
“Diligence, doubt, and dumb luck—the great triumvirate of historical research—finally led me to an answer.” - Lois Leveen, The Atlantic, June 27, 2013
Diligence, doubt and dumb luck certainly account for most of my Oakland Wiki research, both historical and current. (NB: the article linked above is fascinating – worth reading even if you skip the rest of this entry.)
Diligence – The saying “history is written by the victors” applies. But so does the fact that things tend to be remembered and reported by fallible human beings. There might be clerical errors in the reporting, errors in the transcription … even the simple passage of time itself can make things unclear. In other words, don’t assume any one source is entirely trustworthy. Nothing else may turn up in a Google search for things. But if you find a reference, note other ways the topic may be referred to. Names – and knowledge – change over time (heck, in Oakland, addresses even changed over time.) Try looking on Google (and as the Oakland Wiki grows, here, too) on different variations. For example, the East Bay Electric Lines were Southern Pacific’s local rail service in the East Bay. But the name was changed to the “Interurban Electric Railway” later. And many people know the service because of the distinctive red trains, so “Red Trains” and “Red Cars” are also fruitful terms to search on.
- As amazing as Google and other search engines are, they’re flawed, and may fail to make connections no human would miss, given the same topic. Add in the aforementioned errors, and much may get missed. And few site-specific search engines are as sophisticated as Google’s. So for example, if “Joe Shoong” turns up few hits in some source, try searching on just “Shoong” or “National Dollar Store”, or something else related that you find.
Don’t forget books! While many books have been digitized, cross-referenced, and otherwise dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, not all have. And see above references to errors. If you’re doing
historicalany research on Oakland, Beth Bagwell’s Oakland: The Story of a City is a must-have. The current edition is easier to find and more up to date, and it supports the Oakland Heritage Alliance, which is a great resource for historical knowledge about Oakland.
- Don’t forget actual people! As noted above, people’s memories and actions are imperfect. But if you ask someone who lives/lived in the area in question, or during the time in question, or is just generally knowledgeable about Oakland, they may know something or some connection you didn’t.
Doubt – This accompanies diligence. If, during your researching, you find most sources agree, but one source differs … follow up on that source. Is there any truth to it?
- If you’re researching, and something sounds “off” … trust that doubt, at least until you’ve done enough research to put it to rest. And even if you find nothing conclusive, remember that doubt: as you investigate other topics, you may find a reference or connection you didn’t know existed.
Dumb Luck – There’s no accounting for it. You might be researching something unrelated, watching a TV show or news report, or just walking or cycling down the street when you notice … something. But that dumb luck can only help if you remember it. I’ve taken to using Evernote on my phone, but Notepad/Text Edit on your computer, or even an actual paper notebook dedicated to the task will also work. That little thing you noticed and wondered about? Note it, and follow it up later.
[ I’ll write about my particular approach and research sources next; but want to save for now. -Gene ]