Tales from the Front: Real Research

I write research papers for money. No, no not like that! Not one of those horrible paper mills where you can purchase your English grade with a credit card. The shame! Rather, I spend every summer vacation (er, “vacation”) authenticating art for a private company that provides expert opinions to insurance underwriters, auction houses, galleries and museums, and so forth. This is right up my alley: I have sharply honed research skills, as do you all; years of experience in art history; plus I like to write – it’s the trifecta of awesome and I know how lucky I got when I fell into this opportunity. For security reasons I can’t discuss details of individual cases here, but if you’re curious, ask away and I’ll answer what I can in the comments or in a private message. (Come on, you know you want to!) I do this on a freelance basis, and am one of several writers who work for this firm.

For all of you who have ever gotten the eye-roll combined with the “Oh my GAWD, Librarian, when am I ever going to use this again, please go back to reading your books,” this is for you. I realize that most students will not grow up to write research papers for a living, but I believe there are useful lessons here for everyone. Also, I hate mentioning this, but it does seem to matter, so . . . for some reason students are way more inclined to take me seriously when I mention that I get paid to do this, as in, “Oh, well, if it was for money I guess I would be super-careful with my notecards and bibliography and deadlines.” At which point I give them Teacher Face and say, “Is your grade worth less than money? Is your integrity worth less than a few months’ allowance?” Then I raise one eyebrow meaningfully and continue on. Practice doing this in the mirror before school starts.

A lot of my process will seem very familiar to any student or teacher in a general sense, though some aspects are peculiar to art history as a discipline. Like any student researcher, I receive my assignment, note the deadline, ask for any clarification, and then begin. Where? Say it with me, everybody: “Wikipedia.” Because as we all know, it’s a fine place to begin, in order to get correct spellings, birth and death dates, a general overview, some useful search terms, pertinent-looking sources. And then that’s enough Wikipedia!

Then, I check to see if I have adequate resources at my disposal. Art history is especially dependent on printed books, so I look in WorldCat to see what’s available nearby. On one occasion I declined a project because there was not a single book in the whole state I could use. If I were a student, I’d ask the teacher to change my subject slightly. In my case, I asked for a different task and was cheerfully given one.

Next, I open up a working document and start taking notes into it. I have really terrible handwriting but I type like a house on fire, so this way I can work fast and stay legible. I write down every little thing that occurs to me into that file. Nobody sees it but me, and I can cut and paste as much as I want. Better to leave in too much and cut later, rather than overlooking something that proves essential further out and suffer through trying to track it down. Do I document sources along the way? You bet I do!

Then, I search for relevant articles. For authentication purposes these aren’t always that useful, but sometimes articles can tell me if something was recently sold, if there has been a big shift in scholarly thinking, maybe a work was stolen or declared a forgery. I’d hate to NOT read a relevant article and miss some important piece of news like that, so at least skimming a results page in a database is worth it.

That brings me to the bibliography, which is where it gets really interesting for you and me. The bibliography isn’t just a way to prove to your teacher that you worked hard, credited your sources and didn’t plagiarize – it’s a way to give other scholars who read your work a chance to examine the same sources you used and come to the same or different conclusion. No ninth grader can imagine a circumstance in which that would happen to him or her. Well, it happened to me: Two years ago I was asked to a take over a project someone else had abandoned. I was given her notes and the same reference materials she received for the assignment, but I discovered she left absolutely no record of where she had gotten her preliminary information. Imagine my surprise (or lack of it) when I discovered the biography the previous researcher had submitted was lifted virtually in toto from a not-very-credible website. So, I cleared up the problem of plagiarism by rewriting the biography from scratch using more authoritative sources, then set about finding the right materials for the authentication report and documenting them correctly. For my bibliographies I use MLA format, since it’s widely accepted in the humanities, and I let NoodleTools do the heavy lifting.

It’s rare, but there are times when these works of art are referred to in matters of legal consequence: divorce proceedings, insurance claims, and inheritance, for example. So, it’s essential that whatever I use to prove that something is real (or not real, as is the case in about 75 percent of the reports I write) is pretty airtight. I don’t expect to ever be called to the witness stand, but if I do, I sure hope that the presiding judge doesn’t look at me and ask how I formulated my expert opinion and I stammer out, “Uh, I l-l-l- I looked it up on Wiki . . . Wikipedia, your Honor.” Nope. So, a solid bibliography, properly formatted, and everyone wins.

My final piece of advice is for the procrastinators. We’ve all heard this: “I work better when I’m under pressure. I’m awesome at all-nighters!” You are not. You are laboring under a teenage delusion that Mountain Dew is some kind of magic potion that makes you write like David McCullough. Not so! You need to leave yourself some time for serendipitous discovery, and waiting till the last minute does not allow that. I spent four solid days this week researching what I thought was a painting of David slaying Goliath, and about three minutes before the library closed for the day today, I read something that made me realize it was probably Achilles killing Hector. If this report were due tomorrow instead of next month, I would miss my deadline and not collect my check. If I were in school, I would miss my deadline and fail my class, something that will surely hit home with all but the most callous and unreachable students.

So, feel free to pluck any useful tidbits from these experiences when you are teaching research skills and bibliography to your charges this year. If real-life examples help you drive home your point, take what you need and let me know how it goes!

9 thoughts on “Tales from the Front: Real Research

  1. Fascinating! Since you have so much experience researching art history, what databases (or print reference sets) would you recommend for student research? We have one teacher who loves ArtStor but it’s harder to work with and really expensive compared to Grove Art Online. Do you have a preference, or know something else that’s comprehensive and well-sourced?

    • Hi Susan – just saw this comment today. I love ArtStor but it’s really for images only, not much in the way of real reference, so I like Oxford Art Online. It’s good value for the price. for things like biographical data or discussions of period style. Many images can be appropriately sourced through the websites of museums that own the works.

  2. What a fascinating summer job you have. I would love to read one of your reports as well. I am particularly interested in the bibliography section of your reports.

  3. Love it. We are going to write the World History research paper before school starts so that we can say we did the assignment and can share their pain.

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