Worth a shot

December 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

In addition to tackling a dissertation, I’m also contributing to an encyclopedia of early modern women of interest. I’m writing five entries for this encyclopedia, and most of the research has gone fairly well. One woman continues to completely elude me…hopefully that will be resolved tomorrow when I attempt to track her down in the stacks. Another woman is extremely well-known (well…to scholars in this area), but her death records are dubious. Obviously, she died. But we don’t know when or how or where or if she was buried. My research led me to a book I own that is a compilation of her poetic work–the introduction to this book has been particularly useful. Then, I looked at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on-line and saw that the woman who wrote the introduction to the book I was using also wrote the biographical entry in the ODNB. That itself is not particularly uncommon, but what is curious is that in the introduction to the book, she speculates that the poet outlived her husband. In the ODNB, however, she speculates that the poet predeceased her husband.

So, what’s a young scholar to do? Two sources conflict with each other, but they’re written by the same person.

So…this young scholar Googled the well-established scholar, found her at Harvard, and e-mailed her.

Yeah. I e-mailed an extremely well-established Harvard scholar. This might not seem like that big of a deal, but imagine if you were confused on a point and, rather than re-researching this point, you just up and contacted a top-tier contributor to your field. It’s certainly a bit presumptive, but what was the worst that could happen? Either she could respond to my e-mail or ignore it entirely.

Well, she wrote back. First thing this morning.

I was stunned. And she gave me a helpful answer that I fully intend to incorporate into my biographical entry in the encyclopedia.

So, the lesson learned here? When you stand to lose absolutely nothing and to gain a great deal, it’s worth taking the shot. Even if it’s scary, even if it’s intimidating, even if it’s a little bit embarrassing. I guess I ultimately decided to either face a little bit of short-term embarrassment by e-mailing this woman or a lot of long-term professional embarrassment if I misrepresented the facts in my biographical entry that will be published.

Robert pointed out this morning that we’re all academic colleagues here, no matter the university or field experience. That’s how I felt when I received the reply from this amazing scholar–we both have the same goal, and that’s to represent the facts as best as we can in as complete a manner possible. From that conclusion, scholarly consultation flows naturally.

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