Have you ever written a book review?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Going Archival . . .

We receive on average one manuscript query each day, either via email or snail mail. They span the gamut from cringe-worthy to spectacular.

During the last two weeks I received a half-dozen on outstanding topics I would love to publish, from campaign/battle histories to brigade histories and biographies. Five from this group were (to my dismay) grounded in secondary sources and very light archival research. By "light" I mean one or two repository visits or a few letters here and there. What is obviously missing? Work in the National Archives, Library of Congress, Southern Historical Society Collection, newspapers, etc.

Savas Beatie does not publish work that has already been written by other authors, if you get my drift.

If I have an interest in a manuscript and see real potential, I write back and explain this to the authors and encourage them to finish the good work they have started. Below is an excerpt from one of the five who wrote back:
"Thanks, but I am finished with my manuscript. Another publisher will take it as-is. I don't need to pay for a trip to Washington DC just to satisfy a few readers who might get mad because I missed a letter from some obscure private."
I did not bother to respond. As far as I am concerned--both as a publisher and a voracious reader--if an author has never heard of the Compiled Service Record files in the NA and doesn't care, he is not worth the time or money to publish or read. Yes, it is that simple. It has taken me a long time to learn, but you really can't make a silk purse from a pig's ear. And we have too many good manuscripts to choose from as it now stands. Let's see what the other three authors have to say.
How important is solid and extensive archival research to you? Is repackaged work acceptable? I posted a poll on this subject at the top-left of my blog. Feel free to vote there, and weigh in on this blog post with comments.


Juliette said...

Anything that ignores primary sources is not history (I'm not sure what it is, but it's not something I'd recognise as history!). The only exception I would make is for background material in an area not your own - in my doctoral thesis, which was on Greek and Roman history, I included a chapter giving some historical background from ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia. Since I don't read the relevant languages and it's not my area, those small sections relied more on secondary research.

Anonymous said...

The first thing I look at is the bibliography. If an author is too lazy to visit the National Archives (!!??) then he or she is not an author, in my opinion. They are simply rewriting what others have already written. Sadly these are most books published today. Thankfully, not those by SB.


Anonymous said...

As a former editor and agent, I've seen good and bad work, but nothing upsets me more than LAZY writing.

Hello, authors! If you're going to leave a stone unturned, please turn to somebody else.

J David Petruzzi said...

Amazing answer you received. Until I exhaust archival material (the most unused and newly discovered the better) I don't consider a work anywhere near complete. In fact, in my writing career, I've only really tackled those topics that have been hardly touched or not at all - that's what I truly enjoy. I'm constantly looking for unplowed ground - and it's often right in front of your nose. "Plenty of Blame to go Around" (about Jeb Stuart's pre-Gettysburg ride) is one of those topics that many thought they knew about, or already had an opinion on, yet there was a mountain of material and viewpoints to consider that we only found out just *how* much it had been untouched the deeper we dug.

I see lots of books today that rely primarly on secondary sources. I, too, go right to the bibliography when considering one. If I don't see a big list of archival sources, letter, diaries, contemporary newspapers, manuscripts, etc., it's obvious the author didn't take time to dig. And that digging take years and oftentimes a lot of money. In other words, it ain't easy. It's a sacrifice for the love of the research and writing.

If you aren't willing to do what it takes, then your book ain't worth reading.


Francis Hamit said...

Even if you write historical fiction rather than pure history you need to go to primary sources, especially on cultural and social matters. And especially where American Civil War history is concerned. Many of these root documents are themselves compromised and interpreted in a slanted manner. Contemporary newspaper accounts written by political partisans, "official" records written by officers who were not present at the events in question, weeks or months after they occurred and the historical revisionism of Jubal Early and the rest of the so-called Southern Historical Society which created the myth of the "Lost Cause" are strong reasons not to trust historians quoting other historians.

J David Petruzzi said...

Well said, Francis. I can't count how many times I've read a secondary author's take on a primary account - then found the primary account to read for myself - and come up with a completely different conclusion. The usage of mostly secondary accounts only repeats and compounds misinterpretation and errors. And some authors are even guilty of twisting/cherry picking primary accounts to suit their own conclusions (some famously so).

An author who chooses to use mostly secondary sources in their own work treads very dangerous ground - and all the more reason to call their works worthless.


Eric Wittenberg said...

Archival, primary source research is indispensable and any work that claims to be serious history must contain it. The failure to do so is just plain lazy. I won't read a work that doesn't reflect serious primary source research.

Lance Herdegen said...

I think primary source research is what makes a book interesting as well as worth reading. I look at the list of sources in any book before I consider buying it and seek out books by authors I know do the work. The untold story, however, is that primary source research makes the sometimes long and toilsome work of writing history rather enjoyable because you never know where it is going to take you.

Jim Schmidt said...

Several thoughts:

1) The authors' response is quite telling on a number of accounts:

- "finished with my manuscript/another...as is" - gives me an indication that he is more interested in being published than adding something original to the the literature or scholarship

- "pay for a trip" - he obviously sees archival research (of any type?) as a *cost* when in fact it is an *investment*

2) A lot of very good archival research can be done without a long (or "costly") trip but you have to be willing to spend some time writing letters, e-mails, making phone calls, and making contacts and finding helpful - and expert - folks who are enthusiastic about your project. There are some excellent fee-based archival services (for compiled service records, etc) and/or fee-based researchers...again - they are *investments*

3) My only "caveat" to this discussion would be that a book with a "padded" bibliography is as distressing to me as one with no archival research at all...it's not just what you found (and definitely not "how much") but still: how do you use it. If it rained on the day of a battle, I don't need you to mine every possible primary source or soldier letter telling me that it rained...a few will do...I want to know how the rain affected the battle through judicious use of primary resources.

I think people will always be more impressed - and appreciative - of an **original contribution/interpretation** than whether you were published.

There has been good discussion on Ted's post

Jim Schmidt

Anonymous said...

"Not so fast!" said the Wizard of OZ. "Not so fast!"

According to 'archival documents' full of 'eye-witness accounts' at Roswell at the time of the 'incident', the US has been invaded by space aliens.

'Archival' doesn't always mean accurate.


Mark Hughes said...

I spent over a month at the National Archives at the Library of Congress while I was researching my first book. Because of this research I only spent a week in Washington while I was researching my second book.

Anonymous said...

"Archival doesn't always mean accurate."

What kind of lame strawman argument is that? No one here is arguing or propounding that firsthand material means its accurate. It is the role of the historian/writer to sift through the material and determine credibility, document accordingly, use footnotes as needed to explain discrepancies, and so forth. Richard Perry

Anonymous said...

Spare me the 'lame strawman' tag. Bookshelves are filled with 'archival' records that turned out to be fiction.

'Sifting through,' unfortunately, has become a lost art.

Anonymous said...

Wrote Ted Savas: "I write back and explain this to the authors and encourage them to finish the good work they have started."

Wrote Dr. Seuss: "Everything stinks until it's finished."

Anonymous said...

"Sifting through," unfortunately, has become a lost art."

I think you are a cynic to get attention. If you really believe this, you have not been paying attention in the world we are discussing. Do you even read Civil War titles? Some of the deepest, richest, and best researched history is being written today. Pick up any book by Krick, Wittenberg, Hess, any book by Savas Beattie and you will see "sifting" in action.

So please, tell us the last book you read on the American Civil War by a credible scholar, and then point on the shortness of "sift."

Tick, tock, tick, tock.

Rich Winters

Anonymous said...

Get a grip, Rich.

Tick this: I was 'sifting' data before you learned how to read.

As far as the Civil War by a 'credible scholar' goes, when was the last time any new facts made news?

Too 'cynical' for you?

Anonymous said...

Great thread here, all. Just back from my first trip to Antietam. What a wonderful battlefield. Much more rolling and hilly than I had pictured. I agree that archival research is the key to good history. (However, someone posting here needs to get out of his mom's basement more often and grow a pair. I will leave it up to readers of these comments which anonymous poster it is.)

TPS said...

Thank you for the interest in my question on archival / primary source research. However let's keep comments professional and avoid personal shots. Please remain on topic.

Thank you.

Theodore P. Savas
Managing Director
Savas Beatie LLC

Anonymous said...

Most here conflate archival and primary sources. By nature of SB's catalog, the two often line up. But one could write an extremely insightful book on the early political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson without recourse to the archive.

Joe Bickley said...

My caveat would be to replace "archival" with "primary source" material: currently many archives have dramatically increased holdings available online. It is entirely possible to conduct meaningful primary source research on some topics online. I wish, as a historian to encourage the promulgation and digitization of these archives because it makes history, real history, very much more accessible. Time spent amidst dusty shelves does not guarantee thoughtful evaluation of primary sources. So I agree it's not limited to going to archives.
Also, I think history sometimes suffers from a lack of
Synthesis: specialist historians are writing books and discovering obscure facts based on primary sources, but these works are not then reconnected with the larger narrative.
I can also see a valuable purpose in reference works and study guides, that are very much secondary source heavy. Primary sources are no a magic bullet that makes a work "real history." To me, good history is thoughtful, careful, evaluation and consideration of evidence, presented in an clear, informative matter. Sometimes that might mean dealing with secondary more than primary sources. Obviously, one might call into credibility evidence which lacks a foundation in primary sources-but I have read some very thoughtful, original and solid history that falls in the nature of synthesis.
Lazy scholarship is, of course inexcusable.