A Footehold on Research

 "As for research, I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else. A research assistant couldn’t have done that. Not being a trained historian, I had botherations that led to good things. For instance, I didn’t take careful notes while reading. Then I’d get to something and I’d say, By golly, there’s something John Rawlins said at that time that’s real important. Where did I see it? Then I would remember that it was in a book with a red cover, close to the middle of the book, on the right-hand side and one third from the top of the page. So I’d spend an hour combing through all my red-bound books. I’d find it eventually, but I’d also find a great many other things in the course of the search." ~ Shelby Foote1

Last 5 posts by David Byron


  1. Grifter says

    Not necessarily by the quart, though to be honest I don't buy by the quart myself so I'm trying to remember–there have always been some good-sized bottles and some smaller bottles.

    Granted, I live in a college town, so there's more of a market for that sort of thing than there might be elsewhere (we have at least 3 art-supply stores, and all of them also carry fancy stationary and pen/ink supplies).

    Actually, now that I think of it, I can assert they have it by the quart. Dip pens can use different inks than chambered fountain pens, and are used more in artsy stuff. Speedball's got those dip pens, and they always have quarts and maybe even gallons of the stuff. It's the fountain pen ink I'm usually specifically looking at/for (I LOVE my grandfather's Sheaffer PFM IV despite its sorta-misogynistic name…because I am pretentious)

  2. gramps says

    I have an attorney friend who would agree heartily. He did appellate work in the civil arena ("making the world safe for insurance companies") and he insisted on using actual books for his case preparation to the exclusion of computer based works using "key-words". He says he has stumbled onto more useful data/cases by having his eye catch a word or phrase as he leafed through looking for his intended item.

    He did decline to discuss what impact his method might have on billable hours, as opposed to the speedy computer key word method. ("I'm a lawyer, not an accountant".) All he would say is that clients for whom he won cases were, as a group, less upset about big bills than were those who lost.

  3. 205guy says

    Quandary is: should I copy-paste this gem into my quote file or not. I suppose it depends on the quality of material I might stumble upon upon looking for it again…

  4. Mercury says

    Halfway through reading this quote I thought of how great it sometimes is/was to scan a few dozen linear feet of book spines looking for something in particular and serendipitously finding something even better and more relevant to the task at hand. This of course is more or less the point Mr. Foote was making.

    Of course the computerized relational database and the internet itself has opened up a limitless number of doors for research of all kinds previously not possible on any kind of scale. Just think of the power of the mighty [Ctrl]-[F] function alone. But I wonder if the sudden absence of this kind of mental/physical exercise won’t have some significant consequences over time. A whole category of the term “browse” is mostly extinct at this point.

  5. Kairho says

    I was just trying to find an article I once read (about how electricity's invention was facilitated by the dining manners of Gen. Ulysses Grant) and cam across your interesting comments…

  6. jay says

    aww hell, I *am* a trained historian, and I do this sort of thing all the time. One of my regular patrons (I work in an archives/special collections library) has been joking about starting a pay database of potential dissertation topics with all the interesting stuff she finds by accident around here.

  7. Richard says

    After finding the page he was initially looking for, he wrote where he found it at the bottom of the page he was writing. This habit of his got named after him:

    The "Footenote."

    (I see that David must be familiar with this, because he even included one in the OP).

  8. MartinX says

    Soon after, Shelby Foote took on an assistant who didn't have quite the photographic memory he did, nor the inclination to search so far and wide. So Shelby started scribbling summaries at the bottom of some of the pages. Later the assistant, when seen searching for some piece of information, would explain that she was looking for Foote's notes.

  9. MartinX says

    Oh dear, it seems I have had an unoriginal idea. :-/

    Sorry for not reading your post first, Richard. At least the internet is forgiving.