Once upon a time when I was beginning to write sports and social history, the print portion of what flacks and reviewers usually call “exhaustive research" was just that. Even ten or twelve years ago, writing a two or three thousand word profile on a historical sports topic was grueling. Apart from interviews, which, depending on the time period in which one writes, are not always central to the process, you had to try to find every book on the subject – or close to the subject – and hope each had an index, and spend hours looking for useful information. Research in newspapers consisted of scrolling though mountains of microfilm, and either taking notes or taking your chances with copy systems that were rarely satisfying. Even the most basic information was almost impossible to come by. For instance, in those pre Retrosheet days even reconstructing the play by play of an inning of a baseball game was almost impossible.
Now of course the wealth of material available online is staggering. In one full day online I can often access and print (if necessary) more material than I could have physically looked up and copied in several months a decade ago. It has dramatically changed the amount of time it takes to research a contemporary topic, and write a book about it. But here’s the catch. As the wealth of online material grows, I think many researchers just stop doing the old grunt work I just described. There is a tendency to dismiss sources that are not available online through Proquest, some magazine database or Google books. Not true. The result can be a great deal of faux research that ignores as much material as it includes.
In my soon to be published book on Gertrude Ederle, "Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World," I did both kinds of research, days and months online and similar time in libraries. In 1926 Ederle became the sixth person – and first woman - to swim the English Channel, beating the men’s record by nearly two hours, a staggering achievement that proved, once and for all, that women could compete as athletes. My challenge was to animate her and her era. The result was, I think, informative. In the end I uncovered more than six thousand articles and stories about Ederle over an eighty-year period. That doesn’t include the wealth of background information on topics such as swimwear, swimming, the geology of the English Channel and other topics I dove into. In the end I collected more information on a single confined subject than I have ever used in any of my previous books. I am certain that I now have the largest collection of print material in Gertrude Ederle in existence, absolutely critical in reconstructing her life and times. And some of the best of that information was acquired at the very end of the research process, which continued even as I was writing and even revising the manuscript in galley form.
The difference between research then and now is as dramatic as the difference between writing out in long hand and using a word processor. Having done both, I prefer the way it is today, but I am reminded by the process that just as writing today generally requires using both a pen and a PC, research requires both access to online resources and the discipline to spend weeks and months squinting in a corner of the library.
Not unlike the discipline it takes to train to swim the English Channel.