How much research is enough?
When we speak at family history conferences we talk to many people who say they would like to write a family book. But not right now. They need to do a little more research before they weill be ready.
I thought about those dedicated researchers recently as I was rereading Practicing History, a collection of essays by historian Barbara Tuchman, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, one for The Guns of August, an account of the first month of World War I, and the second for Stillwell and the American Experience in China. Tuchman offered a great piece of advice on when to quit researching and begin writing. She said: “The most important thing about research is to know when to stop. How does one recognize the moment? …One must stop before one is finished; otherwise, one will never stop and never finish. I had an object lesson in this once in Washington at the Archives. I was looking for documents in the case of Pedicaris, an American – or supposed American – who was captured by Moroccan brigands in 1904. The Archives people introduced me to a lady professor who had been doing research in United States relations with Morocco all her life. She had written her Ph.D thesis on the subject back in, I think, 1936, and was still coming for six months each year to work in the Archives. She was in her seventies and, they told me, had recently suffered a heart attack. When I asked her what year was her cut-off point, she looked at me in surprise and said she kept a file of newspaper clippings right up to the moment. I am sure she new more about United States - Moroccan relations than anyone alive, but would she ever leave off her research in time to write that definitive history, and tell the world what she knew? I feared the answer.”
How does one avoid this fate? Family history research can be a lot like US – Moroccan relations. The research will never be completed. If you want to get a family history book written, you have to, at least temporarily, stop researching and start taking an inventory of the information you’ve already gathered and begin to consider how you might organize that information in a book. When you begin to plan the book you would like to write two things will probably happen. First, you may find that you have much more information than you realized and that you don’t need to do much more research to fill in your outline. Second, you will know exactly what you need to find to write the book so that your future research switches from infinite to specifically limited.
If you want to write a book you have to begin writing it. There will be time for more research when your book is published.
This post originally appeared July 10, 2011.