When Research Bogs Down
Today I am wrestling with the problem of how much research is enough. I am writing a book about the history of museums that will survey 3000 years of collecting and display, and I’ve now spent almost six months researching the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612). I feel like I’m in some sort of Renaissance wormhole; it is really interesting but how do I get out of it? When is enough information enough? (At this point, this is a very rhetorical question—I know I am long past the point of having plenty of information on this guy. He should take up something like 2-3 pages in my book at most, and yet I have over 40 pages of notes, and I’m finding that as I pick up new sources they are repeating things about him that I already know.)
It is hard to shake a process that has worked on projects that are much more tightly focused than this one. When I wrote about American trade on the Northwest Coast at the turn of the nineteenth century, it was necessary to read all the primary sources that I could identify as well as all of the secondary literature. Capt. Sam Hill’s biography required that I read every single thing ever written by him or about him, in addition to the contextual works of historians working on related topics. I have developed certain habits that have worked well for me in those books: I read the source materials, mark the passages that I think I might quote directly or that have essential knowledge for background, then set them up on my bookstand and enter them into my computer. * (I am attaching a picture of my bookstand and computer on my table today, where I have dolled up my workspace with flowers and candles to entice me to stay in one place and work earnestly.)
After thirty years of following this practice, I now need to shake it up a bit. This week I must put Rudolf back into the ground where he belongs and move on. (I still have to deal with other royals too, because they were important collectors, but King Charles I of England has got to be dealt with much more expeditiously, and what about the Russians?) One of the important things to do now is back away from the details and see the book as a whole, and this section as one part of it. It is also crucial to acknowledge that everything I have learned won’t be in this book; my job as the author is to decide what you as the reader will find most interesting, and what will best bring my best grandiose notions forward.
If, when I have finished writing it and you have finished reading it, you find that you want to know more about Rudolf, I will recommend additional reading.
*I need to make a note here that this process frequently gives me real concerns about the potential of accidentally plagiarizing another writer. It is important that I use different fonts or colored fonts to keep their words separate from mine in my text files.