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Researching “Ten Years of Winter”: A day in my life as a historian.


Most of you know that I’ve been spending the last several weeks in Boston, on a research fellowship to gather historical materials for my Ph.D. dissertation (and hopefully a book, eventually), called Ten Years of Winter. A friend of mine asked me recently what this is like, what the details are and how this all works–and I guess I have been a bit circumspect about it. He suggested I write a blog about it, so here it is, for what it’s worth.

First I’ll explain how I got here. I’m researching a topic that has never been done before, or at least never done to the degree to which I’m investigating it: how people, primarily Americans but others as well, reacted to a period of short-term climate change what occurred in the “Cold Decade” of 1810-1820, and how it affected their thinking about the environment, science, the Earth, God or anything else. This research must be done on the basis of primary source documents, that is, documents left behind by people who were actually there, such as journals, diaries, ship’s logs, newspapers, scientific articles of the time, etc. A lot of historic materials like this are held by archives and libraries all over the U.S. and the world. One of them was the Huntington Library in California, where I was earlier in the summer. Early on I identified the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston as a place that holds a lot of material I could probably use: many journals, letters and newspapers from the era, primarily from New England but also other places too.

Many of these libraries, such as the Huntington and MHS, offer funding, in the form of short- and long-term fellowships, to researchers to help defray the costs of travel, lodging and such. Last winter I applied for the ones for these two libraries. This is an application process similar to grant-writing (actually it is grant-writing), where I submitted a written summary of my research project, what I hope to investigate, why it matters, and why I thought going to their libraries would help. These proposals, only a few pages long, are evaluated by a funding committee who chooses which ones to fund. Luckily, at both Huntington and MHS, I was funded for short-term fellowships lasting a few weeks each. (Long-term fellowships, where I would spent 8 months to a year in one place, aren’t feasible for my project both for research and personal reasons). So, essentially, I have been given a grant from these libraries to travel to them, pay for lodging, meals etc. The grants don’t cover all the costs, naturally; Boston is a pretty expensive place to live.

almanac 1818

Almanacs, such as this one, are a key class of sources I’m using for my research. They contain lots of weather data, and people often kept diaries in them which mention weather and environmental matters.

Anyway, fast-forward to mid-August. I’m in Boston, staying in a rented room (thanks to AirBNB), and my daily work takes place at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Boylston Street. This is a grand old building, dating from 1897, which shares part of the block with the illustrious Berklee College of Music, so there are always college kids wandering about carrying guitars and such. I spend most of my time in the main reading room–Huntington had one too–where I search the catalog for potential sources, request them from the library staff, and examine them in the reading room. Unlike a normal lending library, an archive like MHS contains extremely rare, fragile and valuable stuff (like Thomas Jefferson’s Weather Book), so you can’t take anything away from it. They don’t even allow pens in the reading room and the materials you bring in past the main desk are carefully screened. I am usually in the library from opening until closing–a full work day, with an hour or so for lunch (there are plenty of restaurants in this area of Boston).

Unfortunately I can’t show you a photo of the reading room, as pictures aren’t allowed in there. It is a large paneled room that looks like a gentleman’s club from the 19th or early 20th century–think the smoking room on the Titanic. Around me are painted portraits, all dating from the 19th century, of important men, like Charles Sumner, Civil War-era Senator from Massachusetts. On an oak table is perched my laptop, a few approved sheets of paper and a pencil from the jar over on the desk. I also carry in my cell phone (set on silent), my iPod and headphones. I’ve found listening to music is crucial while doing heavy research. Other researchers do similar things. One colleague is working his way through Game of Thrones on his laptop while he browses 19th century merchant’s letters!

olympic smoking room

The MHS reading room is not quite this ornate, but has the same flavor. This is the smoking room aboard the RMS Olympic (Titanic’s sister ship), taken about 1914.

My daily search begins with the MHS online catalog. I have a number of search terms I look for, usually weather- or climate-related, but sometimes I also just browse categories, such as journals from the decade 1810-1820, or ship’s logs, or whatever. Each time I find something that might even conceivably contain weather or climate related information, I’ll request it by filling out a form and giving it to the staff member at the desk. A few minutes later they’ll come out with the material, usually in a sturdy archivist’s box. Unpacking the boxes is like unearthing an Egyptian tomb. Under layers of cardboard and acid-free folders and wrappers, there will often be a sheaf of wrinkled documents or an old, withered, brown journal with crumbling bindings. These are the real deals: the actual original documents, written 200 years ago. Sometimes they’re letters, or daily diaries, or account books, or just folders of miscellaneous papers collected by or within a prominent family from the relevant time period. Most of the time I find nothing that can help me. But sometimes I do find something amazing.

If this sounds imprecise, it is. But there’s no equivalent of a Google search for old historical documents. Only a tiny percentage of the text of these sorts of documents have been digitized, and a computer search is less likely to help me than you might think. I see a lot of odd and extraneous stuff in these searches. I have seen shopping lists for wallpaper, groceries and home supplies; poetry written by a lovesick teenager; an account by a Harvard student (dated 1817) of the first time he went to a party and got drunk; a young woman’s diary, spanning 10 years, that consisted of little else than her doing laundry and sewing; copies of sermons; recipe books; a sheaf of papers relating to a purchase of jewelry in Paris; a stack of social invitations received by an American diplomat in Paris, including one signed by the Empress Josephine (Napoleon’s wife); and the log book of an American merchant ship sailing from Boston to Calcutta. All of these are real documents, written by real people 200 years ago. They are tantalizing glimpses of somebody’s life, somebody who has long since been dead. Sometimes I do see materials by famous people (like Jefferson), but more often than not the writers of these documents are ordinary people.

monticello darkdays

From a source I viewed at MHS, I discovered that Thomas Jefferson was deeply interested in the subject of climate change, which he believed (correctly) was being caused by humans.

You’d be surprised how often tragedy and emotion creeps into this sort of work. Last week in a girl’s diary I read a section she wrote about an epidemic that occurred in Boston in 1819, and many of her friends died. At the Huntington I got hooked on the diary of an English composer who wound up as the primary caregiver for his desperately ill wife. Each page I turned I was dreading that the wife would die. When she finally did I almost cried there in the library. Real people suffered real tragedy in the past. Their loved ones died. They got sick, were injured in accidents, they were ruined financially, their crops died, their children were ungrateful, their marriages were unhappy. The pulse of human life in the past is very palpable in these dry old documents.

When the library closes, I go back to my own life, such as it is. I’m separated from my husband and my friends, and miss them all terribly. Somehow I have to eat, charge my phone, check my email, and carry on with daily life. Occasionally I’ll go to a pub or eat at a restaurant, or perhaps see a historic site or other landmark. Someday I’ll have my Ph.D. in hand and a book called Ten Years of Winter rolling off an academic press somewhere. But that day isn’t here yet. There’s still more work to do.

All images except the Olympic smoking room (which is public domain) are generated by me and are copyrighted (C) 2014, all rights reserved. The photo at the top of this article is the exterior of the MHS building on Boylston Street in Boston.


  1. I loved your post and I hope that Ten Years of Winter will be coming soon; I would definitely read it. I find your topic really interesting and your research method very impressive -if only, for all the little things you learn on the side of your research, such as the wife of the English composer. Keep going!

  2. Thanks for sharing a day in a life of a historian/researcher. Most people don’t know how complex and tedious a research fellowship can be. As a history enthusiast I am grateful to people like you Sean, without your research how on earth would we ever learn or know about important events and histories no matter how grand or trivial. Keep up the good work !

  3. Very cool! Are you considering a novel or a historical text based on your dissertation?

  4. Sean, thanks so much for giving me this link. I’ve subscribed to your blog for a while now but, apparently, missed this post. Eye-opening!! So, one of my questions is; do they give funding for research (long or short term) to individuals who are JUST writing a book, as opposed to doing their Ph.D. dissertation?
    It must be difficult to simply take notes with a pencil and paper (LOL- like we did not 25 years ago)! I would love to be able to get funded to do research for any number of topics. What you are doing, I find fascinating. I know it’s not fun and games but it’s right up my alley. I can sit all day and watch college lectures on c-span one right after the other. Good luck.

    • You’re welcome! If you like this, you might enjoy several other articles on my site (there’s over 1100 so far, haha). You may want to search or click the tags for “Environmental History,” “Environment” or “Climate Change.”

      Yes, some research grants are available for independent researchers. You may want to check with individual institutions such as MHS, Huntington, Antiquarian Society, National Archives, New York Public Library, etc. Their websites usually have links to fellowships or research help.

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