A Brand New Old Way To Do Masonic Research
by Midnight Freemason Contributor
By Steven L. Harrison, 33°, FMLR
Sometimes when I'm researching Masonic articles I think back to how I did that kind of research in college. Today, most of my research is done sitting in my living room, feet back, staring at a computer screen. Back in the day, to use the trite and overused aphorism, doing research for a paper meant a trip to the library... several trips usually. We were taught to keep our research notes on 3 x 5 cards, alphabetized or otherwise organized. This, so the researcher could move the cards to various sections of information and eventually have an incredibly well-organized way of not being able to find what he was looking for. I found this method especially effective at 3AM on mornings before the aforementioned paper was due.
Today, it's all online — most of it, anyway. I still use the library a lot. It's more than a source of books. The videos there as well as microfilm copies of old newspapers really come in handy. However, I think it's safe to say with anything I write now, the article begins with an online search. I almost always just start with Google. Not to slight the other search engines, but let's face it, Google is the gold standard. It's almost safe to say, if you've used a computer you've used Google. But this isn't about Google.
Another source I use is Wikipedia. Wikipedia and I have a strained relationship. According to my wife's soap opera, relationships are built on trust, and I don't trust Wikipedia. I think it's a great resource and I'm amazed at some of the things I find there, but any Tom, Dick or Harry — or Steve — can put anything in it, so if I find something I want to use in an article there, my rule is I always require corroboration somewhere else. But this isn't about Wikipedia.
"Well," you might ask, "what the heck is it about?" Lately, I've been making more and more use of Google Books. So, yeah, the Google Books project is a part of Google, but it's in large part directed to full texts of books Google has scanned into a database. That makes the books searchable. Within limits, with the permission of authors and publishers, this even includes books still under copyright.
At the moment, I'm deep into research for my next book. As a part of that I'm looking back at the Baltimore Convention of 1843 — what it accomplished, what it didn't and why it was deemed necessary. In a search of Google Books I turned up a volume on the history of Freemasonry in New York with a section that talked about a whole new — make that forgotten — reason the conference came about. I'm preparing another Midnight Freemasons piece to discuss that but, for the time being, what a find in an obscure 19th century book.
I think Google Books is great even for contemporary literature, just to search for content, but it's even better for Masonic research, since (in case they hadn't told you) Masonry has been around a long time and many of those books are in the public domain. There are advantages to being old.
I'm not touting Google books as a panacea, but it is another tool in the arsenal. Even if you don't do a lot of Masonic research, it might lead you to that next book you want to read, even if it's not about Masonry. And it's a heck of a lot better than keeping notes on those 3 x 5 cards.