If you’re working on a memoir that combines family history, biography, social history or just history itself, the research can be overwhelming. I’ve learnt through the years it took me to comb through my father’s papers just how overwhelming it can be! But learning from those who have gone before certainly helped me, so I hope this post helps you. Read on for some ways I simplified the enormous process of sifting and simplifying decades of world history into a story I could call my own.
Working through library archives
When I originally found my dad’s manuscripts, I was completely overwhelmed. Putting together the story of his life seemed impossible.
The boxes in his State Library Victoria manuscript collection alone, stacked high to almost two metres. The more I read, the more work opened up. The project seemed to get bigger every time I read something. His material was in eleven other library collections across Australia and the world. I’d return home to google what had been in one collection, only to find dozens of other collections – across the world – with relevant and related letters and documents.
My father wrote every day of his life – and in a time before computers, so deciphering his handwriting was another task entirely.
Dad’s collection held dozens of manuscripts, thousands of handwritten letters, postcards, receipts, unmarked photos, handwritten diaries… An application for a job in Paris from 1952 would be mixed in with a 1949 church service booklet from Westminster Abbey and a newspaper clipping form 1979. None if it was really ordered, and the diaries also weaved and crossed time and decades.
The people he referred to were written in initials or nicknames, so that I’d have to read a mass of the material at least once, just so I could try and figure out where he was and what history I would need to research to find out who he was referring to.
It was incredulously huge, this project. It felt impossible, if I’m honest.
But this was my dad.
I was determined that I would at the very least, gain a loose chronology of his life!
Here’s a few things I learned from putting together the story of his life from an enormous and disordered library collection (and finding eleven more), as well as all the books I had to read to get a handle on the historical references.
You can apply each of the following to tackling a project like writing a book, too, and I really think you should.
1: HARD IS HOLY
Just as beginning a book or any creative project is hard, attacking dad’s collection was monumental. But that’s what makes it so special and worthwhile, too.
You have to accept the messiness – and the difficulty – to create something new in this world, or to change anything big.
You’re creating something from nothing – whether it’s a book or a painting or, for me, a never-before-articulated chronology of my dad’s life in its entirety.
On those first days in the library, getting used to dad’s handwriting, if I only learned that he had caught a bus to Angorra with a broken leg some time between 1948 and 1950, that would have to be enough.
I just had to sit with that difficulty for awhile, and trust that it would get easier. I kept reminding myself that what made it so hard was what made is also so holy and special (and never-before-done).
TIPS: Use reading lamps when in the library! Batch your projects (eg. reading and transcribing one day, versus googling and connecting the dots another day).
2: BREAK IT INTO LITTLE PIECES
Here’s something I’ve remembered ever since writing my first long essay at University.
I remember the size of the word count (1200!) was frightening. But I broke down the topic into smaller points, and told myself if I could just write a couple of paragraphs on each point, I would have a whole essay by the end of it.
With dad’s manuscript collection, I started by working in years, then graduated to decades. This was of course, difficult, because how do you even look at one year of someone’s life without considering what came before?
But in those first few months, I had to constantly restrain myself from flying off on a wild tangent researching his trip to Cameroon in 1971, for example, or his friendship with Jacques De La Rue.
I mapped out a timeline on a simple word file on my computer, and added to it every time I made a new discovery. Just typing it up freed me up and allowed me to leave it alone.
If I found dozens other references to look into – I saved them in a file to deal with in the next sequence of research.
You have to enforce boundaries and restrictions on yourself with a huge project or you’ll get completely overwhelmed.
3: ASK FOR EXPERT HELP
I’ll never forget my sister coming with me to the library for the first time. She’s a professional archivist – I should have known she’d have a few tricks up her sleeve!
It was a few weeks after I’d started working my way through dad’s boxes, and had morosely accepted the manuscript reading room rules of not being allowed to write with biros, just their stubby little free pencils which were always slightly blunt. I was so intimidated by the librarians I was too scared to ask for help.
My sister marched into the reading room all prepared with her laptop and charger. She only had a lunch hour to spend, so she opened up a new document, carefully labeled it with the folder and box number she was working through. Genius! No stubby little pencils for her!
I didn’t even think we could bring in our laptops! I hadn’t thought to ask.
After a manuscript librarian generously printed me the collection summary after seeing me turn up for the fourth day in a row, not knowing which boxes I’d already seen, I realized I could have asked for that from the beginning.
Ask for help from those who specialize in what you’re trying to do. Following an expert lead can save you so much time.
Another generous manuscript librarian in Southern Illinois kindly scanned the letters of dad’s in their collection and emailed them to me as PDF’s, after I’d boldly emailed a request for help and offered to pay for their time. This not only saved me a lot of time, but an airfare to the USA.
Ask for help.
4: WORK TO YOUR STRENGTHS
I tend to do my best work at home, when I hit the flow button because I know I won’t be disturbed. With dad’s writing, one of the most difficult parts was not being allowed to take any of it out of the library to read in my own time. Navigating their opening hours and booking the boxes took so much rigmarole and was incredibly tedious.
So I trouble-shooted with technology.
Transcribing onto my laptop did help (thanks, Ayala!), but you can only type so fast.
After upgrading the storage on my iphone, I booked in with the library to photograph the entire 350 page contents of one box in an hour. I then saved it to a Dropbox file, printed the whole thing out at Officeworks and voila! I had my very own copy of one of dad’s hugest manuscripts to read at home at my leisure. It cost a bit extra but when I got to sleep in and read dad’s stuff at home with my cat (and a hot coffee) by my side, making relaxed little notes in my journal and actually absorbing his words rather than reading them in a hurried frenzy, it was well worth it.
5: VISUALISE THE END RESULT AND HOLD ONTO THAT WHEN THINGS GET TOUGH
For me, all I wanted was a clear ‘book’ of my dad’s life. All I used to know for sure, was that he was born in 1920.
I wasn’t sure where he’d lived and when, and I had no idea what he did during the Second World War or which famous artists he hung out with – or why, or where. I wanted a list of his publications, I wanted a sense of his character, and I wanted to know when he’d lived in London and France and what had happened there.
I kept my mind fixed on having one book that would answer all the questions I’d had my entire life.
Lastly – find examples of those who have gone before you. I couldn’t find anyone who had been through my exact experience but the memoir A Fifty Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot helped me enormously.
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