Chapter 7: Conducting Research in the Arts and Sciences

Atlantian Arts & Sciences Handbook

Generally, one does research for a practical purpose. When the SCA was formed in 1966 in Berkeley, California, the founders attempted to determine if something was in period and how to replicate it. The research techniques employed can range from very simple or extremely elaborate. One can merely look at a period painting to reference a bench or one might undertake the translation of a period document in order to have complete understanding of period tournament rules. Similarly, the documentation of the result of the search may be composed on as little as a one-page EZ Doc form or create the basis of a doctorate level paper given at a prestigious conference. Regardless of the breadth of the research, at some point the researcher will need to formulate an achievable research goal and use library resources.

This section is designed to guide a novice researcher through an SCA research project. It will provide suggestions for formulating a research goal and techniques to accomplish that goal, including information on selecting sources and using the library.

Getting Started

All research begins with a question and the goal is to find the most appropriate means to answer that question for the researcher first, and then for others who may be interested. First, only the researcher can decide how narrow the answer to the question should be. For example, consider an event with a tournament theme of the Seven Deadly Sins and how the theme could be incorporated into the event. In this case the researcher wanted to know how the sins would have been attired for such a tournament. The goal was to find accurate descriptions for each of the seven sins that had been chosen. The representation of the sins has changed through time and locality. As such, it was necessary to narrow the search to one century and one country.

The second reason to define the question is to clarify that only the researcher can decide how much information is enough to satisfy their curiosity. The researcher gets to choose how far down the rabbit hole is necessary to answer the question. The researcher might have a question about frilled veils. One could choose to find every picture, tutorial, and inventory description in the world as part of one’s research, but for practical purposes, maybe two to three examples would show everything there is to know to make a frilled veil.

Time constraints also should be considered. Decide ahead of time what types of sources are suitable and the amount of time that will be spent going through them. Warning: research can be addictive. The quest for more and more information can turn a simple bench project into a dissertation on medieval culture as seen through chip-carved motifs. It can happen. Set goals early and start researching early. It always takes more time than initially assumed. Expand the search only after completing the smaller goal.


There are several types of source materials available and these are categorized according to their relationship with the original information. They are organized into three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Each source has value in respect to research, if used appropriately.

Primary Sources

A primary source is any first-hand information, be it a document or a piece of material culture, created in the time period in question. For example, Cesar Ripa’s Iconographia is a primary source for sixteenth century Italian iconography. Artifacts from the period are primary sources. The Oseberg ship is a primary source for information about ninth century Viking ships. Original paintings are also primary sources. The Psalter of St. Louis is a primary source for manuscript style in mid-thirteenth century France. These provide the best resources for examples of what would have been created or used in period. There are problems with using primary sources but with a list of best practices, scholars can make good judgements.

Best Practices for Printed Primary Sources

  1. There is no such thing as an unbiased resource. The author is a human being, viewing the world through their own personal lens made up of their life experiences and therefore, can only offer a biased viewpoint. However, their bias may or may not affect their work to a degree that it impacts its usefulness. It is vital to understand that for each publication produced, a narrative is created.
    1. For example, there are many works on the Crusades depicting the struggle from opposing sides such as those of Joinville and Villehardouin or of ‘Izz ad-Din Ibn al-Anthir.
    2. Each will operate with an internal bias given their differing viewpoints.
    3. A researcher who is interested in a common consensus between the narratives must discover where the two chronicles agree.
  2. The translator, author, or editor may not have been entirely accurate in their work. This does not mean that they intended to deceive their audiences, but new information may have come to light since publication. Foundational documents that create a methodology are useful but contemporary scholars will likely have published commentary as to the effectiveness of that methodology or an argument including contemporary findings. When working with an older, foundational document, the committed researcher will also seek contemporary works citing that document.
  3. The scope of a work might be very limited in time or place, or both. When selecting sources, pay careful attention to the author’s or editor’s declared intent. The introduction of a work, or a preface, will give the reader an insight into the author or editor’s agenda along with what information they wish to communicate and how. For this reason, introductions should not be skipped but rather combed through carefully to make sure that a source will have the information needed.
  4. For sources not originally composed in English, the translation of primary sources can be problematic. That a source has been translated means that the translator has made a series of decisions on the reader’s behalf – decisions that the reader has no knowledge of unless detailed by the translator as an introductory part of the work. The reader should be cautious that the translation that they are reading is one suitable for the purpose.
  5. Some primary sources are not direct translations from the origin language to English; they have been translated into multiple languages before being translated into English. The text may be completely divorced from the original.
    1. For example, most Arabic works were translated into German, and then the German was translated to English, before scholars saw them.
    2. A concrete example of this would be the many incarnations of the Bible.

Best Practices for Material Culture (Artifacts) primary Sources

  1. Items subject to time and wear will begin to disintegrate. When dealing with material culture, ensure that any acts of restoration have not disturbed the integrity of the piece. Most curators now take great pains to ensure that restorations are done ethically and with proper documentation, but this has not always been the case.
  2. Monographs of archaeological digs are useful for primary information. Take care, however, to remember that artifacts are limited in time, place, and are open to interpretation. For example, the Shoes and Patterns Book, published by the Museum of London, has become a popular source for European shoe construction.
    1. Despite the broad title, the dig referred to in the book uncovered only 14th century shoes found in England.
    2. The book does not confirm methods of shoe construction used in another period or country and cannot be used to that end.
  3. A painting is not a photograph, and therefore a researcher must be careful when extrapolating data from paintings. Just as authors may elaborate, painters apply artistic license. Some artists were very careful to render accurate details, but others had no intention of doing so. Costume falls prey to this idea of elaboration particularly. An example of this is Romanesque art; the artist’s intention was to create something otherworldly. Even an untrained eye notices that the human figure is greatly distorted by the artists of that period. Architecture and furnishings were stylized, not naturalistic.
    1. The researcher must realize that the clothing too, may be heavily stylized and therefore not an accurate representation of garments worn in period.
    2. In viewing extant tunics from the period, such as the tunic of Infante Don Garcia, from Burgos, Spain, none of them have swirling folds of fabric.
    3. The extant garment can be recognized as the authentic version of what the artist stylized.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is an interpretation of a primary source. It is the archaeologist’s conclusions about artifacts as written in their monograph. It is the scholar’s determination of what is true among the various chronicles of the Crusades. The drawings an artist makes based on artifacts or paintings are secondary sources also. As good as Janet Arnold’s drawings of Elizabethan garments are, they are secondary information. This distinction is made because secondary information is not a substitution for
a primary source but is instead, a commentary or critique.

However, secondary sources are useful. They expose the researcher to past or current trends in thought. It is vital that the researcher is sure to check the publishing date of secondary works. What seemed a plausible conclusion in 1920 may be disproved by now. Newer research on a primary source may be available. Research is an evidence-based science and such, evolves as more data is introduced. Secondary sources are a good place for the researcher to explore once they have exhausted their own assessment on the primary source. They can be used to get a feel for expanded avenues of research.

Tertiary Sources

A tertiary source is a work based on secondary information and is a further step removed from the primary source. Most researchers use a combination of secondary sources and primary works and the documentation that results from the previous two produces a tertiary source. Tertiary sources can be useful, as authors within this category often critique and further examine primary sources, shedding new light upon both.

It is not advisable to base research on tertiary sources, or to go beyond a critique of a secondary source, as they are so far removed from the primary source. When one removes their research too far from the primary material, vagueness sets in – a situation which is not conducive to good research. The best research has a good mix of primary, and secondary sources but uses tertiary sources sparingly if at all.

Finding and Vetting Sources

Now that the three tiers of sources have been established, it is time to start searching for the sources that will help answer the research questions. These days, most searches start on the internet, but no research should ever stop there. There are many good websites, such as Wikipedia and Pinterest, that can assist with basic research. Google and other web search engines can give a researcher a million answers, but it can take a librarian to find the right one. The right resource is one that fits the
argument being made or answers the question posed but those are not the only requirements.

The right source will be one vetted for legitimacy and accuracy. Just because an individual has published a book or written an article upon a subject does not mean it is credible. A good researcher will take pains to determine if the information is accurate by deciding if it has come from a reputable source. Books published by university publishing houses such as Harvard, Oxford, or any other accredited university typically yield accurate information that has met a certain amount of academic rigor. Peer-reviewed journals offer articles that have been tested for accuracy as well as what they contribute to the field at large. Opinion pieces, newspaper articles, and other multi-media sources must be met with skepticism and the sources cited within these works checked for accuracy. If a work is not produced by a legitimate source, no matter how attractive it may seem, it should be discarded.

Local Library Research

Any individual looking to research a topic must figure out how to find out what is available and that can be frustrating. This is not always easy, but there are a variety of places to look and individuals to ask for assistance. The first and easiest place to look is in the library’s catalog. Many libraries have replaced their physical card catalogs with computer search engines. Most systems are very user-friendly and require very little computer experience to use. There are also reference librarians on staff at most libraries to assist anyone having difficulty using the digital card catalog. The catalog is likely to be categorized according to the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) or in the case of some local public libraries, the Dewey Decimal System (DDS).

Aside from the catalog, there are other resources for finding books on a given topic. Subject guides and compilation bibliographies offer lists of titles, which fall under a broad subject. Bibliographies, in general, are a form of research citation; they are a way that an author indicates where they found their unoriginal ideas or data. They can appear at the end of published research papers as well as most books. A basic bibliography will supply all a researcher needs to know in order to find the source listed. Some bibliographies are annotated. The discovery of an annotation of a bibliography may help a researcher to determine if a book will be useful in the search as the annotation will include information about the quality and type of information found in a source.

Indices and abstracts of journal articles on given topics are also available. One such index is the International Medieval Bibliography. It is published semi-annually and indexes articles on medieval subjects appearing in over eight hundred journals and some two hundred volumes of conference proceedings, essays, and other publications. Most often one will find these types of indices only at the university library, unless there is an extensive public library available. Before going to a university’s library, call to make sure that the university library allows non-students to browse the stacks and check out materials.

Local libraries are geared towards a general readership, meaning that most nonfiction works are meant to cover a broad range of topics at a surface level. Basic research questions may be answered using the books they have on hand, but more intense scholarship means going outside the local system. This does not mean that the local library is useless. In fact, it is just the opposite. They may provide indices that will help in discovering books that cover the topic. The local library may have access to on-line indices as well. Most importantly, the local library can retrieve from other libraries using Inter-Library Loan (ILL).

Interlibrary Loan (ILL)

ILL is a service offered by some local libraries on a conditional basis. It allows local library users conditional access to some book catalogs so that users might access items unavailable at their local branch. There can be some cost associated but fees on American/Canadian loans are generally inexpensive[1]Some libraries may prefer to deal only with American and Canadian libraries. Obtaining books from libraries in Europe and elsewhere can be a hassle as the shipping time drastically increases, the … Continue reading. The books will usually arrive in four to six weeks and they can be
picked up at the local library. However, ILL books typically cannot be renewed. It is a best practice to consult the local reference librarian for assistance in finding materials and filling out the appropriate forms.

University Libraries and Archives

In some locations, for a fee or donation, local universities will open all or a portion of their collection to non-student borrowers. For example, both Duke University and University of North Carolina make parts of their library catalog open to non-students to research and check out books. If on campus, and using their internet, they will also allow non-student borrowers to use their academic search engines and access peer review papers that would typically be inaccessible to the average user, such as JSTOR. Contact the university library in question directly, to find out what financial and other criteria must be met in order to acquire a borrower’s card and access to their article databases.

There are other institutions that house useful information. Public and private archives collect and maintain documents and records. They may be willing to send a copy of the document needed. Pursuing aid from institutions of this type involves a little more organization, as one must be very specific in their request.

Museums are also a good source of information. Exhibit catalogs often have a small write-up on each item as well as a good photograph. Additionally, some museums will make photographs of some of the artifacts in their collection for a fee. Contacting the exhibit’s curator is the best way to find out what a museum will and will not furnish to an outside researcher. However, curators are not research librarians and it is not their job to supply researchers with information. Researchers should be prepared and have a precise question with displayable scholarly intent.

The Internet

Finally, the internet is also a valid resource but must be heavily vetted. The most reliable sites are those that compile bibliographies or links to academic works. There are also academic search engines that are publicly available, such as, that provide a database of articles available to be downloaded and sourced. However, unless one purchases the advanced search option, there is no way to search exclusively for peer review content. Google Scholar also suffers from the same limitation, as one cannot set the search for strictly peer review journals.

Using encyclopedia websites, such as Wikipedia, can have their uses. While these websites are not produced by an academic institution and the information in them is not reviewed by scholars working in an official capacity, they can be a good starting point to acquire a basic understanding of a topic. However, they should never be used exclusively. The most useful parts of any given article are the cited references. Again, these cited references should be met with skepticism if the source is less than academic in nature.

Note Taking

Once the researcher has located their appropriate materials, they must then get the most out of the resources. There are many approaches to note taking during the research phase of writing but there are some solid best practices to keep in mind.

Note Taking Best Practices

  1. Keep notes as reading progresses by having a notebook, a stack of index cards, or a device to take notes handy.
  2. Apps and programs like OneNote and Evernote can be useful because they offer a search function.
  3. Peel-able page markers, such as the flags made by 3M, will allow readers to mark where a useful passage is in context. They can be removed without harming the page before returning the item to the library or bookshelf.
  4. As a part of the note-taking process record the title, author, and call number of each book. Write down a few words as a reminder as to what the author wrote and include page numbers and a paragraph number. This information will be invaluable should the resource provide citation-worthy information.


It is very important to do the research for a project before beginning any of the handiwork. Often, beginning artisans make the mistake of starting a project before figuring out if there is historical evidence to support it. Working backward, in this way, the artisan may discover too late that there are nuances that should have been incorporated at the beginning of the project. The next step after finishing the project is to check the research to make sure the project stayed true to the documentation. At this juncture it is suitable to discuss any compromises made during construction, and to discuss the construction techniques.

To assist the novice researcher in recording their documentation, it is recommended the artisan use EZ-DOC forms. There is a generic, very basic form, and other forms that are more tailored to the type of research such as one formatted for cooking recipes. These can be found on the MoAS website. While on the MoAS website, review the relevant judging form as that is the form that the judges use during the contest to evaluate the work. This is useful as it points out the focus areas that need to be covered in producing a project or documenting it.

A second type of documentation is more organized and detail heavy and often takes the form of a paper or article. This pulls together these pieces of knowledge that helped the artisan create the work into a solid concise but detailed paper. It is usually the most detailed and organized type of documentation. Documentation of this nature could be placed beside the work on a display table, used to teach a class, or later turned into an article for the Compleat Anachronist or Tournaments Illuminated.

The third type of documentation is tailored for entering with the work in a contest but is more information heavy than the EZ-DOC. It is not as long as a paper or article and is helpful since the judges are often short on time to review the information given with the entries. This system lets the judges assess quickly how knowledgeable the artisan is about their project. They will know if a mistake was made because of circumstances, or out of a lack of knowledge. If clarification is needed, it can be easily obtained. A brief summary should be used for this documentation. Judges look for specific details to
be included documentation and they are:

  • A summary of what was done, what was done in period, and any differences between the two.
  • A brief history of the original item’s time and place.

A Sample Documentation Outline

  1. Information on the original artifact should include a:
    1. Description of what the artifact is;
    2. List of the materials that the artifact is made out of; and
    3. Mention where the artifact was made, when it was made; and why.
  2. Information on the sources that were used should include:
    1. Books,
    2. Journal articles, and
    3. Photos.
  3. Information on the method of fabrication should include a:
    1. Written description of how the object was made by the artisan; and
    2. Any photos depicting the stages of construction.
  4. Credit should be given to other artists if they assisted with:
    1. Parts, processes not done by the artist. For instance:
      1. If another artisan made the buckle on the bag,
      2. Or the pattern for a dress.
    2. Independent quotes upon the item.
  5. The documentation should include a self-critique of:
    1. What was learned through the process of making the item, and
    2. In retrospect, what could have been done differently or better.

Constructing Documentation

Documentation is a necessary by-product of research. It is necessary because it shows not only the sources, but a personal creative process. When one enters a display or a contest, one should be able to explain choices in design, materials, and construction. However, the artisan is not always allowed to be present during the judging process. The documentation, therefore, is the voice. It is the method by which the artisan explains to the judges the necessary details of the project, as listed in the bullet points above. This section is intended for those times, or when the research paper is the entire project.

Obviously, if the sole item to be judged is the research paper, the paper needs to show more depth and breadth than if there is a product presented with the documentation. The MoAS website has some helpful links for further reading on research and documentation writing.

Good documentation for contests should always be clear, concise, and to the point. Generally, the judges do not have the time to read a twenty-page long document. This is not to say that one cannot or should not do a twenty-page write-up that includes background information, an annotated bibliography, an in-depth analysis of the production routine, learning experiences, and so on. If the documentation is that long, the submitter should include a summary that is no more than one or two pages in length. There are some issues that must be discussed in the documentation which will be illustrated in the Summary Page section.

The documentation should be in a regular format that includes a cover sheet, summary page, main documentation, and bibliography or works cited. The style of these pages should be consistent. If the researcher is unfamiliar with the formats for bibliographic citations, use a common style guide such as the American Psychological Association (APA), Chicago Manual of Style, or the Modern Language Association (MLA) Handbook. Basic citation guides for all three styles can be found on the Purdue OWL website or by a simple web search for a citation generator.

If a physical copy of a style guide is preferred, they can be ordered online or found in a library. Many style guides include information on how the paper should be written and formatted to meet the demands of that particular style, as each one is unique. As citable media changes with the growth of technology, the publishers of the style guides update them to account for new resources. It behooves the researcher to make sure that they have the newest edition of the style guide in question.

Many writing programs and programmers offer built-in citation engines. However, these should be used with great discretion as any program may be prone to making errors on the author’s behalf.

The Cover Sheet Outline

  1. The title of the work should be stated in such a way as to be as specific and concise as possible.
  2. Information about the author should include SCA and legal names, local branch, and email address.
  3. The cover sheet should also include the date the work/study began and the date it was completed.
  4. If possible, include a photo of the item and a photo of the author.

The Summary Page

As concisely as possible, describe the documented evidence for the authenticity of the piece such as this example.

These shoes were made based on a pattern drafted by _______, in ________. The pattern as well as a photograph of the piece were published in _______ and are provided here as Plates 1 and 2. See the main documentation for details on similar styles and sources.

If the documented evidence is not as precise as the above example, describe the sources from which the conclusions were drawn about design, materials, and construction. Documented evidence should include a statement about the materials used and those that were used in the period. Assume that the reader knows nothing at all about the subject, as they very well may not. Take nothing for granted and describe every aspect. Also, explain any deviation between the artifact and the replicant as the point here is to prove that the researcher has done their due diligence. Avoid making broad, sweeping generalizations and reference the page number of the main documentation for any statement which the judges might question. Be prepared to have proved, in writing, the thought process and any assumptions that have been made.

Therefore, the summary page should provide brief answers as to what the piece is, from where the artist got their ideas on design, materials, and construction, how it was designed and constructed, and why there was a deviation from the artifact, if there was. It is also suitable to give the reader some additional information such as the artisan’s experience in the subject matter, estimated skill level, and the amount of time it took to complete the project.

The Main Documentation

All the technical and expository information left out of the summary page should appear in the main documentation as the summary page will reference this section. Be as organized as possible and present this section as a research paper with an introduction, body, and conclusion. Discuss the research in depth in this section. Document the sources in the manner that the style guide requires. Provide any necessary photographs to illustrate the points made. Do not forget to give the source(s) for the photograph(s) and caption the images.

Citing Sources

When to cite or how to cite a source can seem difficult to master. However, if an idea is not original to the writer or found in less than three sources, it should be cited. If a quote is pulled directly from a source, it should always be cited. The manner of citation should match the style of the paper, be it MLA, APA, or Chicago Style. While not necessary for any of these style guides, include the full ISBN number if one is available. Some citation systems require specific methods of in-text citation as
well as a page that gives expanded information about the sources used.

Citation is vital to any research paper or project as it not only gives sources their due, but it also allows anyone reading the paper to trace back where the author found their information, should they wish to do so. Proper attribution builds the case that the author is trying to make and supports the argument of the paper. Without proper citation, the judge or any other reader is left to guess where the author got their information. In the situation of a source not being cited when needed, a case for plagiarism can be made – meaning the author has made it seem that the thought/concept/idea/data originates with them rather than someone else.

Annotated Bibliography

Some citation styles, publication guidelines, or contest rules may require an annotated bibliography. An annotated bibliography is different in many ways from a traditional bibliography. An annotated bibliography is one in which the author makes their own statements qualifying the references cited. The qualification may also include information depicting what the source does and does not say about the subject in question and why the paper presented is necessary. Annotation also gives the reader information that will assist them in determining which book or source they would like to investigate first.


1 Some libraries may prefer to deal only with American and Canadian libraries. Obtaining books from libraries in Europe and elsewhere can be a hassle as the shipping time drastically increases, the shipping costs are high, the safe delivery of the book can be questionable, and the language barrier can be problematic.