Tuesday 19 November 2013

Research and Effective Documentation (updated) by THL Asa Gormsdottir

Oct 27 2005, updated June 30, 2010

When deadlines loom, whether it’s the Kingdom Arts and Sciences fair, a Pennsic display, or the Trillium Decathlon, many people begin to think and/or panic about their documentation. As the catgut crossbow/Norse needle case/Etruscan vase/Polynesian grass skirt/suicide mead nears completion, we sit down to hurriedly scratch out a few lines before trotting off to the event. Then the problems begin. "How much is enough? Do I have to write a book? Where did I see that reference? I know that technique is period! What did I do with the link?"

Ideally, the research and documentation supporting the entry developed with it. Reverse documentation after the article has been completed can leave one feeling embarrassed and muttering, "I know they had apples in period". In contrast, a well-chosen reference from Giacomo Castelvetro's 1614 work on fruits and vegetables eaten in Italy leaves a pleasant aftertaste. Your beautiful, well-executed entry cost time, money and spousal brownie points. To be successful, it deserves equally good documentation. The dividing line is preparation.

Laying the Ground

Often we stumble into a new art/science and enthusiastically start producing. A few pieces later, we may find ourselves at a loss to prove that what we've so confidently created has any real connection to period work. Keeping a perpetual file on useful books, quotations and websites is a great way to start the groundwork for good documentation.

When performing your research, keep in mind the differences between primary, secondary and tertiary sources. Spend some time exploring in the library stacks – it's amazing how many relevant books don't show up on the library search engine.  Don't worry if the book is in a foreign language – pictures aren't – and many SCAdians are happy to share their translation skills to puzzle out a page or two. Scholarly journals are frequently available online, especially with a university library membership or through your local library. And Scholar GoogleTM can sometimes help narrow down the search to relevant documents.

Try to locate still-extant pieces online or at local museums. Many museums now have their catalogues online. Other visual sources include illuminations, paintings, miniatures, woodcuts, etc. Employ the "test of reasonableness" when examining a painting. Be aware that the depiction may significantly differ from the actual object (lines or setting idealized or omitted) or has been altered over time (fading colours, dirt, over-painting, poor restoration).


The Mad Scientist

SCA Arts and Sciences are essentially experimental archaeology. Taking the scientific experiment approach helps break the work down into its components. Some helpful documentation headings include Description, Materials, Execution/Construction/Techniques, Comments, Exceptions, Anachronisms and Bibliography. Start with point-form notes and build from there.

When formulating the Description, ask yourself the 5 Ws. What exactly is this item? Where would it be found? At what time? Who would have used this? And why? Discuss how an owner's sex, class or profession affects the piece. Consider the impact of regional variations, social setting, contemporary constraints (wars, famines, sumptuary laws). Identifying the environment helps better define an item.

Explain, don't conceal, exceptions and anachronisms. Communicate your logic and ideas. Proactively recognizing and identifying issues ("Due to cost I used turmeric instead of saffron, which is a period solution because… ") pre-empts criticism and demonstrates you are aware of the differences. Reasoned choices are rarely penalized; sweeping problems under the rug is. Addressing these challenges helps you create a better, more authentic item the next time.

The Size of One's Schwartz

Good documentation can be as short as one page plus bibliography. If the paper is longer than 3-4 pages with bibliography, consider adding a one-page summary to help judges quickly appraise your research.

Employ simple fonts (e.g. Times New Roman or Arial), one-inch margins, paragraphing and white space when formatting your research. Pictures of extant items (properly attributed) are worth a thousand words. Sprinkle them in the paper, or include them in an Appendix. Point out specific characteristics, e.g. construction details or motifs.

Consistently following an appropriate style guide to format your quotations, footnotes and bibliography, such as the Chicago Manual of Style (history) or MLA (humanities) will give your documentation a more professional look. Rather than padding the bibliography in an attempt to impress, limit named sources to a quality few.

Get friends to read your documentation and point out problems or logic blips. Don't forget to spell check.

If you are a confident speaker but have difficulty expressing your thoughts on paper, stick to point-form comments plus your bibliography. Then, present verbally. Keep notes, pictures and sketches in a folder as back up. This material can be used to develop future classes.

Making a contribution

Careful reading, practical experimentation and concept testing are producing high quality research in the SCA. Going beyond an entry's basic provenance by learning about its location, timeline and characteristics, as well as cross-reading in different disciplines, helps us build a more balanced, credible understanding of the piece. Documentation is how we communicate that understanding with others. Research and documentation are not the end of a successful project - but the beginning.

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