Monthly Archives: February 2010

A matter of some note–er, notes

In the past, when doing research for some specific project, I’ve taken notes by hand on old-fashioned notebook paper, index cards, or some combination of the two.  This system has its advantages and disadvantages.  Pen and paper are always handy; I can just fold a few sheets into whatever book I’m consulting and carry it with me and get a little work done whenever I have a free minute or two. 

I don’t write as quickly as I can type, though, so if I’m doing research in an archive and I need to record a lot of information, handwritten notes can be very problematic.  Photocopying is always an option, but it’s also expensive, so I try to do it sparingly.

Not too long ago, my mom decided to get a new computer, so she gave me her miniature Dell laptop.  It’s about two-thirds the size of a standard laptop and very lightweight, perfect for stuffing into your bag.  Here, I thought, was the answer to a dilemma.  From now on, if I planned on going to an archive or library where I needed to take lots of notes efficiently, I could bring my wee little computer along and type them into a word processing program, saving me the laborious effort of writing them out by hand.  Handwritten notes, I figured, would still work fine when gleaning from my own books or on other occasions when I didn’t have the pressure one is under when going through an archival collection.

Then I got another idea.  If I’m going to be taking and storing some of my notes on a computer anyway, maybe I should try a program designed specifically for research and note-taking, such as Scribe.  It’s free, and designed with historians in mind.  (Given my Luddite proclivities, though, I doubt I’ll use such an approach.)

Judging by these notes he jotted down on the history of the slave trade, Abraham Lincoln was a pen-and-paper kind of guy. Maybe the fact that laptops weren't around had something to do with it. From the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

Of course, it’s possible that juggling handwritten notes from some sources and digital notes from others could turn out to be a real headache, so maybe I should be relying principally on computer-composed notes for research projects, and save the written ones for general reading.

Normally, I’d have the luxury of experimenting a little to see what works best.  It just so happens, however, that I’m starting a fairly large research project, one that will require lots of data from a wide range of both archival and published material.  I want to ensure that I can record and organize my notes for this as efficiently and sensibly as possible, since this will differ in scope and intensity from all my previous research endeavors.

I know that some of you who read this blog have quite a bit of experience in conducting large-scale historical research projects in both archival and published sources.  I thought that I might be able to benefit from your collective advice. 

What’s the best way some of you researchers/writers/blog readers have found to take notes for your research projects?  Do you find paper or index cards more workable?  Do you ever use a computer, and if so, how?  Do you mix and match different note-taking approaches depending on the source, the location, or some other factor?  I’d appreciate whatever recommendations or success/horror stories you can offer.


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Dr. Ernest Freeberg on Eugene Debs

I walked past a newspaper machine in Knoxville yesterday and saw a familiar face on the cover of Metro Pulse: Dr. Ernest Freeberg.  I was in a graduate seminar on American religious history that he conducted at UT, and he was one of my favorite professors.

His latest book, a study of Eugene Debs and his critique of U.S. involvement in World War I, is the focus of the cover story.  You can read the online version here.

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In Lincoln book news

I was quite pleased (but not at all surprised) to hear that Michael Burlingame will receive the Lincoln Prize for his two-volume biography.  This was an award that was very much deserved. 

I think it’s going to be interesting to trace this book’s trajectory in the coming years.  Scholars seem to have accepted it as the definitive bio for this generation, and I have no doubt that it is.  Still, I wonder if its heft and price tag will intimidate interested readers.  Unless a trade publisher brings out a paperback edition, David Donald’s one-volume work may remain the go-to life of Lincoln for those who simply want to get to know the man.

Speaking of Lincoln books, check out this item from the Abraham Lincoln Observer (a blog you should be reading regularly if you aren’t already).  Apparently Bill O’ Reilly is working on an assassination book which offers “startling new information.”  His co-author is a sportswriter with far too much time on his hands.

ALO speculates that it might have something to do with the pages torn from Booth’s memorandum book, the same memorandum book from which Booth himself tore pages to be used as notes.  It doesn’t need explaining.

So not only will we be subjected to another conspiratorial history book, but one probably based on a non-issue and written by non-historians.  The last time this happened, a chemist tried to convince us that one of Lincoln’s own cabinet members orchestrated his murder.  We need another Lincoln conspiracy book like we need another teenage vampire movie.


Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Historiography

While plugging the McMurtry Lecture

…I neglected to mention the time it starts.  It’ll be at 6:30 P.M.  Don’t forget that this event is at LMU’s Duncan School of Law building in downtown Knoxville, not at the main Harrogate campus.

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This is the sort of thing

…that’s just made for blogging fodder.  If  you follow the ACW blogs, then chances are you’re already aware of it.  If you don’t follow them—or comics, movies, and the careers of high-ranking Confederates who served in the Western Theater—then here’s the situation:

In 1864, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne proposed that slaves be enlisted into the Confederate armed forces, in exchange for their freedom.  The scheme went nowhere, and Cleburne lost his life at Franklin.  About a century and a half later, Cleburne’s scheme became the basis of a graphic novel, which added more fuel to the ever-popular black Confederate controversy.  Now a film project based on the comic is in the works.

You’ve got the intersection of the past with popular media, memory, race, and myth—all of it steeped in controversy and played out within the context of a developing news story.  This’ll keep us history bloggers stocked with material for months.

Country singer, SCV member, and Civil War aficionado Trace Adkins is slated to play Nathan Bedford Forrest.  A quick Google search turns up this item from the Civil War Preservation Trust, reporting that Adkins was also a spokesperson at a CWPT news conference a couple of years ago.  Here’s an excerpt:

Joining Lighthizer at the news conference announcing the report was country music star Trace Adkins, whose great-great-grandfather served in the 31st Louisiana Infantry before being wounded and taken prisoner at Vicksburg, Miss. Adkins, an avid student of history said, ‘I’ve been a Civil War enthusiast all my life. When I visited the battlefield in Vicksburg and stood in a trench where my great-great-granddaddy stood, tears came to my eyes. As a father of five, I believe it is critical that I protect a legacy that belongs not just to my family but to our entire nation.’ 

I haven’t read the graphic novel yet, so I don’t know how it handles the contentious issue of race in the Civil War.  If the film makes it to the screen, it may well turn out to be a complete historical travesty that perpetuates one of the most irritating myths of the entire war. 

On the plus side, though, I think Adkins could do a pretty credible Forrest, with his imposing frame and unaffected drawl.  He’s also survived a nasty gunshot wound, something Forrest also pulled off in 1862.  That’s the acting equivalent of hardcore reenacting, I suppose.


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Lincoln lectures are back at LMU

As I’ve mentioned before, the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN has one of the finest Lincolniana/Civil War collections anywhere.  For decades, this material has been a fabulous resource for both the public and for scholars.

Much of the credit for building this collection belongs to the late Lincoln scholar R. Gerald McMurtry.  After spending a few years with the Lincoln National Life Foundation’s collection (formerly on display at the now-closed Lincoln Museum in Ft. Wayne, IN) and the Lincoln Memorial Highway Commission, McMurtry came to LMU in 1937.  He stayed for nearly two decades—returning to the Lincoln National Life Foundation in 1956—and in that time he oversaw the university’s “golden age” of Lincolnian acquisition and scholarship, collecting many of the university’s most spectacular pieces and writing or editing an impressive list of scholarly publications.

This photo shows a very small part of the collection that McMurtry helped build: a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln by one of her relatives, Lincoln campaign banners, and a flag Lincoln raised during his 1858 bid to unseat Stephen Douglas.

Until several years ago, LMU’s museum hosted an annual lecture named for Lincoln artist and collector Lloyd Ostendorf.  It was always a great opportunity for students, alumni, and visitors to hear Lincoln and Civil War scholars present their research, and it was sad to see it go.

I’m pleased to report that LMU is once again mounting a Lincoln lecture series, this time under the aegis of the college’s new Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy.  Appropriately, it’s named in honor of R. Gerald McMurtry.

Dan Stowell will present the very first R. Gerald McMurtry Memorial Lecture on Feb. 12 at LMU’s Duncan School of Law in Knoxville.  Dr. Stowell is editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln and author of a number of books on Lincoln and nineteenth-century history.  You can get more information about the lectures series and the institute here.

As somebody who got his start in public history at LMU, I’m extremely happy to see the university hosting regular Lincoln lectures again, and equally happy that the school is honoring McMurtry.  I encourage anyone in East Tennessee with an interest in history to attend and help get this series off to a great start.


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More ominous news

…for history institutions, and this time it’s in my home state.  Gordon Belt has the details.

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