Lessons learned from Isaac’s calendars

I had my first “calendar party” today. Its purpose was to get a group of people to start working through Isaac’s calendars and enter the information in a common computer database. Isaac kept all of his calendars from 1973 through 2010; it’s a wealth of information for any biographer.

(Some came to the party with purposes of their own; the utterly awesome brought a surprise sugar-free birthday cake. Yay!)

What I learned is that this task is much, much harder than I thought it was, so hard as to make my original goal impractical.

For one thing, most of the calendars are dense with information. One of us took two hours just to enter a couple of weeks.

That leads to the second issue: Isaac used a private notational language for his calendar entries. Some things I recognize (the circle with two lines through it means Druidry) and some I’d have to deduce (a filled-in five-pointed star means a specific person… I think). Those symbols can’t be entered via computer, much less the colors he used for different kinds of entries.

The point of entering the information was to avoid scanning the images of the calendars into computer files. I now know that that’s exactly what I’ll have to do. Back to the scanner!

I’ll still have calendar parties, but it will be just to enter milestone information; e.g., festivals. I’ll have to look at the pictures of the calendars to understand his day-to-day life.

For anyone who thinks I’m dwelling on useless trivia: When I say the information is dense, I’m not talking about trips to the grocery store. In 1973 he appeared to go to some form of ritual every couple of days. He made things even more complex in 1978 by changing the calendar dates into a Druidic scheme; culturally accurate, I’m sure, but torture for a biographer.

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  1. sabrinamari

    Dearheart, the kind of discovery you mad yesterday means that the process is working. I know it’s discouraging to have to rethink a research strategy, but it just gets you closer to the process that *will work*.

    And through scanning, you will preserve your access to the original data in all its glory. Woo-hoo!

    I wonder if it wouldn’t be really, really useful to interview a biographer just to get tips on the process. I know you want to push on interviews, and i agree that they are important, but I think you need to work on the process as much as you need to whorl through the process. This analogous to the concept of working on your business, as opposed to working in your business, which is big in some circles.

    Maybe you’ll take 3, 4, 6 hours to line up an interview with a practicing biographer, but she/he can save you 3, 4, 6 months of work overall.

    I think it’s worth a try. And if you lose, what have you lost? Some hours. What have you gained?

    Social capital where you need it.

    1. wgseligman

      “Social capital”? You’re a genius!

      I’m an officer of Columbia freakin’ University (though we normally leave out the middle name). There are many research departments: sociology, anthropology, literary. I can ask around and see if anyone can make some time to discuss research methodology with me.

      It’s so obvious, but without you I never would have thought of it. Thanks!

      1. sabrinamari

        You’re welcome. Please help me think about my book when my brain is out to lunch. I promise I’ll need the help.

        1. wgseligman

          I sent an e-mail to a professor of American History in Columbia’s History Department, and another to a professor in the Columbia School of Journalism. Let’s hope I haven’t offended them with my presumption!

        2. wgseligman

          Wait a second… you’re writing another book? On what?

          1. sabrinamari

            Not yet. I will. Not yet.

            I am still learning to deliver my baby into the world. I have discovered that books need aftercare, nurturing, guidance even after they are born.

            They need ongoing stewardship. I am learning to be a good steward.

            Help me learn stewardship!

          2. wgseligman

            When I asked my coach how to proceed with writing Isaac’s biography, she suggested that I write an LJ post listing my goals and how I was going to fulfill them. Then she had me focus on one time-critical goal (interviews) and suggested I list my subjects, checking them off as I contacted each one.

            Sounds like good advice to me, so I’ll pass it on to you: By “stewardship,” do you mean promoting your book? Or do you mean the underlying message of support for inner-city women? Or both?

            What are your goals? Let your LJ friends help you and offer support as you check off each one.

        3. wgseligman

          I have an appointment to meet with Bob Scott, head of Columbia University’s Digital Humanities Center, on Thursday Dec 22. I’m going to try to schedule a meeting that same day with Mary Marshall, Directory of the University’s Oral History Research Office. I’ll talk about digital resource techniques with Bob, including indexing and coding; I’ll talk about protocols in conducting interviews with Mary.

          Do I get a passing grade in use of social capital?

          1. sabrinamari

            Bill, you did all this work yourself without any help from me. I’m pretty impressed. How do YOU feel about it?

          2. wgseligman

            The absolute honest-to-goddess truth is that I feel apprehensive about navigating traffic in Manhattan on the Thursday before Christmas.

            I supposed I should feel some sense of pride in gaining a new resource, but I haven’t actually learned anything new from these folks yet.

            Well, I did learn about something: http://www.zotero.org. It’s a great research organizational tool written by Columbia, and it’s free. You probably have better tools where you work, but you might want to check this one out.

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