To share my background, I was an art major for 2.5 years in college with a focus on Fine Arts and Illustration, my minor was English and then History. I changed my major at that point to History, but only for a semester before I dropped out for a couple of years. The bulk of my classes during that time were art (drawing, painting, printing, design, etc.). I positively loved my History courses (hence the major change), but they were, for the most part, not high level. When I did reports for my history classes, they were book reports. We wrote essays on topics discussed in class. When I wrote an actual (long) paper for the first time, the only requirement was that we use at least three sources. I think I had five. All were from books that I walked into the library, selected off the bookshelf and then checked out to read. I did not vet my sources. I did not know to do so. I did not hit the stacks to look for research articles on my topics, because I did not know that I should.
In my art history class, we had to write a paper. It could be on whatever we wanted. I started to write what was essentially a book report on three different books I had on Celtic Art. We had to turn in a draft and the professor complimented my writing skills, but told me I needed to make a conclusion from what I was reading, that I needed to approach my subject as if I was trying to prove something. That is the one and only time during my education that that was ever brought up.
I ended up finishing my liberal arts degree by picking up random classes at other schools after I moved to Maryland. It was mostly the general requirements that I was missing, and I needed a few more high level courses and chose to take Psychology classes. We learned little in terms of research methods in any of these. The one class that did have impact on me during this time was some sort of health course that talked about health fads. We did learn a little (very little) about taking a better look at an article (and its sources) to see if it had merit or if it was just pseudoscience trying to look impressive. I wish the whole semester had been on that.
Now, about my SCA research. My first attempt was in college. I went to the library and looked at Kohler’s costume book and another that had less in the way of extant examples, but did have pretty line drawings of what costumes from each century would look like. I also owned (insert groans here) Braun & Scheider’s The History of Costume. Essentially we looked at pictures and tried to revamp American Civil War patterns into those things. We had enough garb as a result to make it to those first few events.
My second attempt at actual research played out much the same way. I went to a college in Baltimore and looked in the library for costuming books, freaked out over how much photocopies cost but made a few, then tried to take notes on the rest. See the issue here? I did not even know enough to look beyond very broad (and VERY dated) books on the topic. The internet was really not even a thing at that time, so I had no resources to tell me how to better approach my subject.
In the late 1990s, someone in another reenacting group told me about Janet Arnold. My mom got me Patterns of Fashion 3 for Christmas and this opened my eyes and started letting me try to look at things from a different angle. I started to see more depth in what research could be. Eventually I came across Drea Leed’s Elizabethan Costuming site and my eyes were opened to how expansive costume research could be. I was still in my infancy though, regarding research, because really, if something was in a book, or on a very nice website, it had to be correct, right?
In 2004, I really had this urge (as a budding Middle Eastern dancer) to make costuming that was period for use at SCA events. I was able to find a few sites online that were made by SCAdians, and went to the Ottoman Style & Status exhibit in DC. I got Ipek (a glorious volume detailing silk production and textiles of the Ottoman Empire), the exhibit catalog and saw Ottoman Costume: From Textile to Identity but failed to buy it that day (thinking I could easily get it later). It was impossible to get here after that, but my boss went to Turkey that spring and her history-buff husband drug their tour group through 3 used book stores to find me a copy. That was the book that woke me up. I suddenly had a wealth of detailed information about small topics under the bigger field of Ottoman costume. That one book changed the way I approached research. I bought additional books on the topic, and found a handful of articles online, but it was enough to let me know the sorts of things I would need to find when I really got hit with the research bug in 2007 when I switched my persona to a Viking one.
Why did I tell you all of that? Because I see too many arguments about how research is too hard. I had someone get pissy with me and a few others online because we had both been to college (even though education was never part of the argument, nor should it have been). Apparently, to them, that means that everyone who went a university has some sort research skills beaten into them and I want people to know that it is simply not true. I started college in 1990 and finished in 2000. I did not really start to understand research processes until 2004-2005 and did not start digging in really deep until 2012.
Fact, this is the SCA and no one has to research anything. You can make whatever attempt at pre-17th Century attire you like and show up to an event without ever cracking a book. If, however, your goal is to try to produce more accurate work you will need to do some amount of research at some point. You also need to learn to weed out dated or poor research materials. And you might need to become familiar with another language (note, I did not say you need to learn it, but for some fields, you need to get a grasp of certain terms).
I am now frequently seeing arguments about how much harder it is to get a Laurel now than many years ago. About how people used to make do with less research and fewer materials then we look for now. And this is partly true. Yes, your research might be have been limited to 10 resources for a topic while the same topic now might really need three times that many. Note though, that if you look at effort, not just content, the effort to get that material is about the same. There is also far more material that we can sort through, rather than just making do with what few books we can ILL or what few journals exist within driving distance. Used book sites online actually make owning some of these precious materials easier as well. Also, back-in-the-day, if you had something in German, and did not speak it, you had to painstakingly (and often badly) translate using a dictionary. Now it is easier to get a reasonable (if not perfect) translation online, and the internet makes it far easier to network with others to perfect a translation. I agree that the bar should not be set higher with each generation of Laurels, but I do not believe in ethics when it comes to these matters and I do not think that pulling 10 articles off the internet is enough work to equal the effort put in some years ago. Modern technology is helping expand our access to materials and our horizons, to the betterment of all that are invested in accuracy. (And no, let us NOT indulge in a conversation here about how one might view that the bar is set too high… that is another topic entirely.)
So, here are things I want to point out that I had to learn the hard way:
Sources – do not just settle for online sources. Do not limit yourself just to books. Do not limit yourself to the one journal your libaray has. At some point realize that you might either have to buy a book (or download) or actually go to a library to try to ILL something you really need. Learn to mine the bibliographies of academics to try to find additional details about a topic.
Languages – you do not need to learn another language (unless you want too), but for many areas, you will have to learn to deal with foreign text. Some things have been translated by other researchers, so you might look online for those, or network with others to see what they have found or produced. Online translators are a wonderful start, but not always trustworthy when it comes to complex discussions. Again, you might need to network to help you sort out details in key materials. At the very least, I do not think it is too much to expect someone to learn the key terms of their field in the more common languages used for publication of that material. (And realistically, I have learned enough Norwegian at this point that I can read the titles of most articles when I am searching for things. I did not set out to learn that, but use of translation tools and when getting help from friends to translate items, I have picked up enough that I can run online searches and weed out materials without help. I never expected that, but it is a nice bonus!)
Current Articles/Duplication of Articles – Often an author will cover the same, or very similar topics, over a span of decades. If you start seeing a name pop up over and over in bibliographies, it would be good to find a list of their work online. Try then to track down the most current articles FIRST. People revise theories as new evidence comes to light, and that might be your best plan to start with the most current items. I still recommend eventually tracking down the older works, because they might have additional details, and it is also sometime enlightening to see how thinking on a topic has changed. A great example here is for those interested in Viking Studies to get Hägg’s newest Haithabu book, before tracking down those from the 80s. She condenses some of the theories on dress in the new volume that can be quite useful.
Application of Critical Thinking – this is very important. Making a step from pure research into applying that knowledge is very powerful. You need to be willing to make that leap at some point. You need to be willing to process the data yourself and, quite possibly, be wrong. It is ok really, there is always more to learn and research is a living science. For some fields, there is a great deal of experimentation that needs to happen, because the evidence is scant. This can be stimulating, but it is also important here to approach this as a science (and work with any evidence we do have) and eliminate the woulda/coulda/shouldas from the scene.
Also in terms of Critical Thinking, we need to remember that everyone can make mistakes. It might be that someone has a beautiful, polished website, but has missed critical material in their research. It can be European reenactment groups that seemed as though the stepped directly out of the past that it is easy to believe that what they are doing just has to be correct. It isn’t always that way. I will use an example here, Wulfheodenas is a Vendel age reenactment group. They always look amazing, and well put together. They also wear wolf pelts as part of their kit. Because they look so fantastic (all of them) people make the assumption that that is actually part of the typical warrior kit from the period. If you talk to them about it though, that that is not actually the case, and that it is not supported as a broad fashion, and that they use it to distinguish their group of elite warriors from others. If you never have that detailed conversation with them about their inspiration or their kit, you would never know that. Yes, I said it. Just because some group in Europe does it, does not make it correct. Some of the groups do amazing work, many of the individuals are beyond compare in their research and presentation, but it is always better to dig deeper to the sources and to figure out why they made the choices they did. (“Group X did this thing” is not documentation.)
And to go beyond reenactors, look at some of the museums out there. Some have very dated displays. Someone sent me pictures of a museum in Ireland of the costumed mannequins with a huge question about their accuracy (because they did not look “right” to her). One of them was based on very, very dated information. One of them was based on total bunk (the person who designed the item was later asked about it and could not remember which bit of research lead to that particular bizarre conclusion.
And research? Same thing. Some academics (cough – she-who-shall-not-be-named) would rather make headlines than produce ethical, scientific research. Other items might have some value, but you need to look more closely at the details before you can really determine how valuable that piece is to the over all scope. Remember that 50% of Women Were Warriors hoopla that spread online several years ago (and about every 6 months since)? Those click-bait titles were based on an actual research article, but what you need to see is that the academic piece only covered a small number of graves, from one single site, and the conclusion drawn was actually that 50% of the SETTLERS at that site were potentially female.
Finally, I want to mention that we all have challenges that we have to overcome. For some, it is physical. Many people do not realize that I have some pretty serious neck issues that actually can radiate down into my hands (making them pretty useless). This not only impacts my ability to sew or spin, it stopped my progress in becoming a professional dancer, and it affects how long I can sit at a computer. This means that some days, going to work is all that I can handle. I have to work with these limitations as best as I can. I am not going to make excuses for lackluster work because of it. I know that it is my limitation, and not someone else’s issue, and it means that I have to take care in my approach to my projects and know that it might take me five times as long to sew a garment as another person. I have attention issues, and problems focusing, or bouncing around from one incomplete topic to the next. I have actually learned to make this work for me, to some extent. I know that I will not complete something on time, so I rarely plan to enter competitions. Rather, I let myself bounce between projects, and often I learn enough more about Project A while working on B and C, that when I get back to A I might need to revise something, but that in the end it will actually be better. (And yes, this also means many things never get finished, but I have also learned that it is not the end of the world and I am better off doing things that make me happiest at a given moment.) Some people have much deeper hinderences than I face, some people have time, family or money issues that slow down progress. None of this is fun, but remembering that sometimes things might just take longer for one person than the next can, and that that is OK, really can help keep one in a “happy place” in terms of our chosen arts.
Research is an art and science on its own. For some people, such as myself, it is the driving force in what I do. For others, they only do it to reach some other end goal. It is all good. We can choose to do more or less of things as we like to and, honestly, as life would allow. It is not always easy, and nope, it is totally not for everyone (seriously, if it is torture, just don’t put yourself in that position), but I am hoping that this random mess of thoughts will let people see that this, just as much as learning to sew the perfect dress, is a long process with each step building on the one before.