One way in which beginner researchers in fields such as genealogy and specialist hobbies can learn how to identify research problems is to create exercises for themselves with different primary sources.
The how-to of creating exercises
- Pick an online source such as Footnote, the Internet Archive, or a newspaper archive.
- Pick a topic like murder or a place such as the Greater Toronto Area or Canada, or both.
- Enter the query into the search block and select several options returned by the search engine, for example, salmonella and the Toronto transport system.
- Build the story as it happened at the time, based upon the chosen options selected from the search engine returns.
Example 1: Project Blue Book
Project Blue Book files are free on Footnote. They contain the United States enquiries into unidentified flying objects. An investigation was launched into a UFO sighting in British Columbia in 1960. The sighting was declared a hoax.
A reconstruction of the story from the documents in the Project Blue Book files shows that there were flaws in the 1960 investigation. One of the most obvious flaws was that the investigation was not extensive enough.
Researchers often face a lack of information because those who created the original documentation were not thorough in performing their tasks.
Example 2: Newspaper stories of criminal cases
Not all criminal cases are available in court records, but court reporters in early newspapers provided detailed accounts of trials. These accounts can be used to reconstruct a forgotten piece of criminal history, like the story of Benjamin Parrott of Hamilton, Ontario. Benjamin’s reconstructed story reveals something previously unnoticed. It is possible, even probable, that he was the unidentified victim of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Many documents reflect the beliefs and practices of the time in which they were created. No one understood fetal alcohol syndrome in 1899 but, in retrospect, researchers are able to reevaluate information based upon what a reconstructed story reveals.
Exercising makes perfect
Recognition of hidden problems within primary sources is one of the first steps in building research skills. The way to identify these problems is to reconstruct a story from the primary sources, and then isolate the discrepancies for further investigation.