I suppose everyone has a method that works for them. I know I do. Mine isn’t gospel or without fault, I’m sure. However, I’ve grown rather accustomed to how I research and would be glad to improve if I was shown a better way.
Just recently, I had an article published in the Stone-Campbell Journal on the pioneer preacher, John Mulkey. That project was probably the most fun that I’ve had researching. Luckily for me, I had a lot of help. Here’s what I recall doing for that particular project that led to its publication:
- Gathering Sources: I went to Old Mulkey Park, and the park manager had a decent library of materials on John Mulkey. I also called the Disciples of Christ Historical Society (now closed), and they furnished several book selections and articles already written about him. Knowing who’s a specialist already in your research helps because they’re often very generous in helping you research. I also looked at what period in American history he was associated with and looked for corroborating records—both primary and secondary sources—that would help. Once I had all of the sources that I could easily obtain, I went on to my next step.
- Read Acquired Sources: I read all of the sources I had and noted common themes and stories associated with John Mulkey. I took note of sources used within what I read and would acquire them regardless if they were rare or common. Then, I’d read those works after the preliminary group of sources I had. By this time, I had a rather common grasp on John Mulkey. My job as a researcher was to see where there were gaps and holes and try to fill them in. Whenever I read through my sources, especially if they were mine to keep, I would mark them with highlighters and use legal tabs so that when I saw a tab I was reminded that I needed to pay attention to that page and what I’d highlighted.
- Begin Writing: Most of the time I wouldn’t wait until I’d read all that I could. I began writing rather early. I’d write what I could from memory. That was my common-knowledge writing. Then, I’d get more specific in my writing and determine a direction as to where I wanted to go. A lot of the time, I didn’t know where I’d end up or what I’d conclude. I let the research take me wherever it would—just as how Vergil took Dante around in the Divine Comedy.
- Study the Period: Since the height of John Mulkey’s activity was noted as between the late eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth century, I focused on that period. I even read books about Jefferson’s presidency. I read the complete works of Thomas Paine because of a sentence in one scholarly article. It stated that Paine’s tract, The Rights of Man, was heavily read in early Kentucky. To get into the mind of Mulkey, I felt as if—because of that statement—that I needed to get into the spirit of early Kentucky and even Thomas Paine. I became very empathetic to them all.
- Make a Contribution: By the time I’d researched and written, I needed to decide on how I would advance the conversation. It wasn’t that I would add anything that was necessarily new since this was history. However, I’d interpret what I’d read having become familiar with the milieu of then and add what I could. My contribution was based on the union of John Mulkey and Barton W. Stone. Stone’s reformation had a certain number of adherents that had taken him a few years to grow. When Mulkey joined his reform, he brought with him the same number in one swoop that Stone had taken years to acquire. My point also stemmed from a statement that I’d seen repeated several times about Stone’s reform and how the union with Mulkey was an “impetus” for Stone.
A lot of times I use encyclopedias because the bibliography lists at the end of entries is a great starting place for gaining a general knowledge about a person or topic. I sent off the article after having written it a few years ago. It was met with warmth, but it wasn’t yet good enough for publication. I had made three revisions before it was finally accepted for publication. That was a rather tedious process that I’m enduring again with my dissertation. However, I will say that by the time the article was published this past fall, it was well polished and much better for having undergone that scholarly, peer-review.
Perhaps the most critical phase of research depends on the help and expertise of others. They can see the holes in my effort, and it made me all the better for it. “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (Proverbs 27:17).