I recently picked up a project that involves detective work. Not traditional research, really, but detective work. A local organization has a very large slide collection that they wanted to digitize and then upload to an online database. The slides came from photographs taken by staff members over the last thirty years, and while some are clearly labelled with a building name or maybe an address, most of the slides have less information to describe the picture.
My role in this project is tracking down information about the photographs in preparation for posting them online. For example, if I have only the street name, can I find out which cross streets it's between? Can I find a specific address and the building's date of construction? Can I tell which direction the photographer was facing? I try to establish this information in addition to suggesting why it was important to the photographer to take that photograph. Perhaps there's an architectural detail of interest or a recognizable highway bridge swooping through the background, emphasizing the high-low topography of Cleveland's industrial districts. I assign meaning to these images through the captions that I write. Though this work can be irritating at times, it satisfies me.
I love detective novels. When I was little I devoured Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Boxcar Children, and all the other mystery series for kids where each book wiped the slate clean and presented a new adventure. When I was older, I got into Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers books, and I added some more hard-boiled fare with John Grisham novels and Dennis LeHane's Boston crime thrillers. I've seen every episode of Law & Order. I like watching these fictional characters piece together information, finding clues and reaching conclusions.
I've realized that this process also thrills me more than anything else I do on a regular basis. When someone calls the office with a question about their family history, or we find mention of a name or business or building that we can't immediately place into context, my heart starts to race as I flip through pages of city directories, rifle through binders of obituaries, and comb through genealogical records on the internet. I feel a little bad about how often I turn to my office mate and proclaim the amazingness of my newest discovery. Connecting the dots is what excites me; finding out what whole picture they make up is only an extra bonus.
As I'm thinking through what I want in a long-term alt-ac career and, on an even smaller scale, what I want to do from day to day, I'm also thinking about what books like Wishcraft say about trusting what you love to do. If I can't be Veronica Mars in my day job, I can find ways to do my brand of detective work after hours. I could be like Gemma and Abbie in The Keepers and put that detective work in service of a cause (and first, maybe I should write my long intended post about my thoughts on The Keepers). I am resolving, now, to think more in the coming weeks about why I am drawing a distinction between detective work and research and also to determine why that distinction matters to me.