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Review: The Modern Researcher

The Modern Researcher by Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff. Belmont
Reviewed Johana-Marie Williams

The background of both authors of The Modern Researcher is (fittingly) as historians, and Jacques Barzun is perhaps better known for his contribution to the history of education. It is obvious that his focus in education informed the writing of The Modern Researcher, as there is much value to be had in this book to students and scholars in other disciplines and at other stages of education. Sadly, Barzun passed away in October 2012, but his contribution of this text is invaluable to the education of history.[1]
Henry Graff's background is also in history, his most recognized works--other than the modern researcher--being The Tuesday Cabinet: Deliberation and Decision on Peace and War under Lyndon B. Johnson and The Presidents: A Reference History. He is currently a professor emeritus at Columbia University.[2]
Barzun and Graff’s goal in The Modern Researcher is to  prepare students of history for research by giving them the tools to organize their research, organize their own thoughts, make imaginative but fact-based leaps, and to examine their own thinking and writing for flaws in logic and communication. The book is broken into two parts (“Principles and Methods of Research” and “Writing Speaking and Publishing”) with seven chapters each. It is also peppered with well-chosen anecdotes from the lives and works of real historians meant to exemplify both good and bad tendencies in historical writing and research. One of the strengths of the text, the stories give evidence to the prescriptions given and keep the reader engaged in what could have been a dry three hundred page list of the does and don’ts of historical methodology. This use also gives tangible examples to the reader on some of the major points of the text, such as the seamless use of quotations from sources.
One of the weaknesses of The Modern Researcher is it’s… lack of modernity, particularly regarding research in internet databases and the overall attitude toward updates in technology. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the newest edition was published in 2004 (nearly decade ago), however even in 2004 references to “so-called tablet computers”[3] and word-processing software that “shows only half a page at a time”[4] would have been dated.  Also, the availability of other technological resources needs to be updated to reflect the advancements of the last ten years, both of the technology available and of the average historian’s access to archived research. This is not to say that all or even most original research can be done online but it is to say that the somewhat skeptical attitude towards using computers, internet resources, and other technologies flies in the face of what is available for and what is expected of the historical researcher today.
The most valuable parts of this book, in my estimation, are chapters two and eight: "The ABC of Technique" and "Organizing: Paragraph, Chapter, and Part", respectively. Both chapters are at the beginning of their respective parts and are examples of front-loading the text with the indispensable information. While it is necessary the other topics of The Modern Researcher be addressed for the book to operate at all as a complete text, there are other sources that would better and more completely address citations, translating, computer usage, etc. However, the idea that the “a note is a first thought,” was revolutionary for me, and—I believe—will affect other students in a similar manner, once grasped.[5]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          
One of the most difficult challenges of any writer is researching in an organized manner then organizing that research in the way that best lends itself to forming a coherent first draft and aiding in further revision. I have struggled with this undertaking in both my creative and scholarly writing, and I now believe I have a much better grasp proper note-taking, and would even suggest that at the least these two chapters be introduced much earlier in the college curriculum to students of all disciplines, preferably during freshman year.
While needing some updating once again, maybe with some input from younger researchers more experienced and comfortable with new technology, The Modern Researcher continues to be a definitive resource for students of history that should perhaps be used earlier to give students a solid foundation in the art and science of historical research.




[1] New York Times, 25 October 2012 (website)
[2] Columbia University. “Department of History”. (website)
[3] Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher. 25
[4] Ibid. 294
[5]Ibid. 26

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