Where do I search for “context?”

Uw websiteAn interesting question was posed by a friend who stated she didn’t do too much context searching as she found it too overwhelming.  I got to thinking about her question and she is right…there is too much out there so the question is not only WHERE to look but HOW to sift through all the responses to get to the “good stuff.”

Here is the approach I take….and I would appreciate if readers would share their favorite “go-to” sites.

  1. What is context?  I have blogged about this before (See What is Context Anyway?, 10 February 2014). ESM stated in a presentation at NGS 2014—that “context” is not about what car they drove or the latest dance craze of the era.  It is not “scenery.”  I suggest it is the historical forces (externalities, if you are an economist) that motivated our ancestors to make the decisions they did.  The context ties your ancestor’s decisions to the events of the day.
  2. What do I search for?
    1. People searches:  These are not the people you are related to, but rather people who might have lived at the same time in the same place and felt compelled to write about their experiences.  To the extent that their experiences parallel your ancestors–you can infer that your ancestor experienced the same. these are usually found during locational or key word searches.  Once these related (by time and place, not genetically) are identified I search on their names.
      1. example #1: Dirk Bode left no written documents of his experience in the “insane asylum”; however, two women wrote diaries and another individual was important enough that a biography was written about him.  So what information can I draw from these that might apply to Dirk?  It takes careful reading.  If the women rarely saw men, I can infer that Dirk probably rarely saw women. I found the authors of these diaries by doing a more general search on the specific insane asylum.
      2. example #2: Jens Dahle was imprisoned in Salisbury Prison during the Civil War and left no record of that experience. At the same time an individual from Pennsylvania wrote a diary of his daily experiences in the same prison at the same time. I inferred that the experience of one is not too dissimilar of the experience of Jens.
    2. Locational searches: This is the search most people do–looking for the location in a variety of places to see if anyone has written about it. It is where I start.
    3. Key topic/word searches: To determine my keywords, I think of all the topics that could possibly relate to what I am writing.  These key words then form the list of topics I will search.  If the paper is short, I may have only one or two key words.  If there are multiple issues, I might check out 15 books and download 20 articles (e.g. Sweden as it begins the 19th century). Typical topics are the law at the time, property law and women, immigration, geography, health, education, ethnic group, literacy, reformation, religion etc.
  3. Where do I search?
    1. For me, access to an academic library is a must.  I am an employee of the University of Washington and so I have full access to the library and its inter-library loan program.  I have found the following locations to be terrific.  My list of “go-to” sites is increasing. These are in priority order.
      1. JStor: a site that catalogs individual articles from professional journals.  I always look here first.
        1. example: the Salisbury Prison diary noted in 2.A.ii above.
        2. example: an article on the history of Swedish literacy noted in 2.C. above.
      2. Books/WorldCat:  a card catalog of books and some e-journals in the world.  I access this through UW and so I am automatically also looking at HathiTrust and some others of that ilk.
        1. I have checked out right now seven books on Sweden ranging from myths and religion to the history of agriculture.
        2. I also check out methodology books.  Most recently I checked out a book on using the Register system of numbering and writing for the Register by Henry Hoff.
      3. ABC-Clio:  a new find which I am still testing to see if it yields good results.  This is a database of journal articles solely related to history and American life.  It looks very promising.
  4. What do I do when I get 10,000 hits?
    1. Like you (I suspect), I tend to only look at the first 3-5 pages unless I am still getting interesting results.  On the agrarian history of Sweden I stopped at the end of the first page….the suggestions started identifying locations other than Sweden and I already had a good book.
    2. I do not look at the Book Reviews except in the most cursory manner–I assess quickly if the book is pertinent to my topic or not.  I do not read the review until I determine if the title and the short description relates to what I am looking for.
    3. If it is a journal article, then I open up the article.  Standard scientific format puts an abstract at the front of the article.  I read the abstract and that tells me if I ought to download it to my Good Reader app on my iPad.  If I do, I catalog it under Genealogy/Research/Topic name
    4. If it is a book, I check the book out.
      1. When it arrives, I  skim it quickly.  If it still is of interest, I keep it; otherwise, it is returned.  Because of the academic nature of the library I can renew the books almost indefinitely.  (How many folks are researching the history of agriculture in Sweden at any one time?)
      2. I then reread the book and place post-it arrows at the chapters/sections/paragraphs of interest.  I then write the paper; and later review the post-its, and then using the book, formulate my citations.  I work back and forth–to the books and journal articles, to the paper and back again.  For me (your mileage will vary), I find this helps me keep the flow of the paper going smoothly  Basically I try to get the concepts I need to support my thesis from the book, write the paper, use the book for citations.
      3. If I find that I have written something that I cannot find where I got the information, I either continue looking for the source or write it out of the document depending how critical it is to support the hypothesis.
      4. I keep a list of all sources reviewed for any given paper.

I also use Google Books and Google Scholar.

These are just some of the sites/techniques I use.

Which sites do you use?  These are just my top 3; am I missing some good ones?  Any special techniques you use?  I admit that my access to the UW Library system is a huge benefit of my employment.  And it is not a negative that I know three of the librarians very well, two of whom are genealogists.

Happy Hunting!


Things I have done since the last posting: Had a wonderful dinner with the small group of our Genealogy & Family History class.  Heather is off to Europe, Sandy’s daughter just got married, Carole is contemplating a trip to SLC and Heidi is taking a Coursera course in reading medieval Spanish documents.  Amazing group.

image:  photo taken by the author, 19 June 2014.


13 comments on “Where do I search for “context?”

  1. A favorite technique of mine: scroll through newspapers (microfilm) looking for events around the same period of a person’s life. This can even include weather conditions.

    • jkmorelli says:

      Good point! This is the “parallel story” approach, a very effective way of supporting the story of the individual. I used this technique in the Dirk article. Thanks for sharing.


  2. I would also add context to my writing when a family member mentions a historical event. I am transcribing the letters my grandparents wrote during World War II. My grandmother occasionally mentions events that she listens to one the radio, like a President Roosevelt giving a speech. There are several websites that specialize in Roosevelt, and have audio archives of Roosevelt’s speeches. As much as people complain about Wikipedia, I have found links in the reference section of the pages that are quite informative.

  3. johnweise says:

    I just want to point out that anyone can use WorldCat and HathiTrust, not just those part of an academic institution. And on the HathiTrust site, it is possible to search the full text in addition to bibliographic metadata.

    • jkmorelli says:

      John, so true. I admit, because of my access I did not “test” another form of access. Thanks for the reminder,


  4. Karen Stanbary says:

    Internet Archive (www.archive.org): I searched the location where many of my ancestors lived and lo and behold, up pops a book of recipes – Burlington Ladies Cookbook and 25 Secrets of Success – printed by the local guy that lists the names and addresses of the women in the very neighborhood where my female ancestors lived. Included in this booklet were two recipes by my second great grandmother – one for a wedding cake! This little booklet offers a rare glimpse into the lives of these women including instructions of how to clean soot off of wallpaper.

    • jkmorelli says:

      Very cool! One of the things I rescued when my mother died was her recipe file. How great to have two recipes of you gx grandmother.

  5. wilssearch says:

    I did not see the Gutenberg Project mentioned. They are digitizing print books and all are free.

    • jkmorelli says:

      I went searching on this site–its a good one. found an interesting book on Sweden. Thanks for the tip. You do have to sign up for access.

  6. Lisa Oberg says:

    America: HIstory and Life is another database that I consult regularly to find journal articles on an event, group or location. The content may overlap with some of the sources you’ve listed, but it is yet another resource that can help lead to those all-important primary sources. Large academic libraries will also have access to this database.

    • jkmorelli says:

      Lisa, When I searched for that website (I forget who pointed me to it) it focused me on the ABC-Clio database at the UW Libraries. Perhaps I got it wrong. Any clues as to the difference?

  7. Margaret Fortier says:

    Great post, Jill. I love JSTOR and Hathi. When I find an article or book with pertinent information I look for other material by that author. And of course the footnotes is what I examine. And Google Images can lead to a great photo and sometimes more background when you visit the original page.

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