This summer, all four of Penobscot Marine Museum’s remote interns conducted research related to ships participating in the slave trade or early Maine African American residents. The process tended to be challenging and they didn’t always find what they were looking for.
High school intern Audrey described her experience looking for African American residents in Searsport and Hampden using census records. While she did not find any African American residents in these towns, she did learn more about the people who were living there.
First I had to switch all the data over into excel, so I went through each page of the census and copied and pasted it into Excel. Once it was in Excel, it had to be organized and formatted because it didn’t copy it all in straight columns. Once that was done, I had to make sure all of the numbers were being registered as numbers so I had to go through and take out all the spaces that were after all the numbers. After that, I could start using different graphs in Excel to sort through the data and find trends and averages. The most useful to me were pivot tables. These could be used to find any number of things such as averages and counts between different columns.
The other interns worked on a variety of projects. Matt also dug through census records. Lauren was researching local ships and created a video on the brig KENTUCKY. Built for Searsport Captain Benjamin Carver, the KENTUCKY later went into the slave business. For more information, look for Lauren’s video next week! Katie dug through the finding aid relating to family files, looking for mentions of African Americans that might be in the PMM archives. She wrote about her experience and, more generally, her experience in historical research:
When I initially imagined historical research, I imagined a series of “Voila!” moments and, essentially, imagined myself as an investigator uncovering mysteries buried away for hundreds of years. Anyone that has actually taken on any sort of research project, though, understands that this is almost never the case. The process behind researching and analyzing documents can take many hours of digging through documents with little to no real change or exciting outcome. After fewer “Voila!” moments than anticipated, I started my process of researching with the understanding that I will face many dead ends or have to circle back to my starting point. But this realization helped me to really enjoy the process of sifting through documents, more documents, and then even more documents.
Research takes time, and I understood this from the very beginning. What I really underestimated was how much time was required to find something, anything. In order to develop my own process, I tried to analyze each document from a new perspective. How many ways could this simple headline be interpreted? Who wrote the article? Who was impacted? Who did the authors meet during their voyage, where did they spend the most time? All of these questions helped me immensely during my process of digging through the big picture headlines in order to find the small¬—but still incredibly important—details.
This process, interpreting the information from a new perspective, consistently sparked my interest and expanded my own ability to conduct historical research. After familiarizing myself with this process, I eagerly sorted through the documents and found myself envisioning a dozen different pieces of the historical puzzle with each question I asked myself. Eventually, I found the appropriate pieces to complete the puzzle. Or in a historian’s case, at least figured out what the puzzle could be—because when can we really say our research is finished?