Another case of "research rapture"

As a researcher of early Tennessee history, I find it hard not to have empathy for Lyman Draper.

Lyman Copeland Draper from a daguerreotype
portrait made about 1855.
Image credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.
Lyman Copeland Draper (1815-1891) was the secretary of the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the man most responsible for preserving the memory of the early settlers of the Trans-Appalachian West.

A librarian and historian, Lyman Draper corresponded with the early settlers of the region and their descendants in an effort to "rescue from oblivion the memory of its early pioneers and to obtain and preserve narratives of their exploits."‎

He spent many long hours writing letters to the aging pioneers seeking their reminiscences and made many research trips to the South to chronicle these stories. Immediately following the Civil War, Draper's proclivity to collect manuscripts and notes saved many of these legendary tales from certain destruction, as Union forces burned courthouses and destroyed documents and artifacts held in southern repositories.

Lyman Draper had high ambitions to become a popular writer and to publish the biographies of these heroes of the Western border lands. Although Lyman Draper published ten volumes of historical notes for the Wisconsin Historical Society as well as a volume about the Battle of King's Mountain, which featured many of the people who were also early settlers, he never finished his biographies. Draper biographer William Hesseltine noted that "All his life Draper was planning to write books, but some psychological quirk made it impossible for him ever to realize his dreams."

What was this "psychological quirk" that prevented Lyman Draper from fulfilling his ambitions? After reading David Ferriero's blog, AOTUS: Collector in Chief, I think I may have stumbled upon a possible reason for Draper's lack of published material. I believe that Lyman Draper suffered from a condition called "research rapture."

In a recent blog post, the National Archives chief shared a link to an op-ed piece by Sean Pidgeon in which he defines "research rapture" as...

"A state of enthusiasm or exaltation arising from the exhaustive study of a topic or period of history; the delightful but dangerous condition of becoming repeatedly sidetracked in following intriguing threads of information, or constantly searching for one more elusive fact."

It can surely be said that Lyman Draper succumbed to "research rapture" many times in his effort to chronicle the lives of the early settlers of the Southwest Territory. This feeling of empathy for Lyman Draper's condition came over me time and again as I studied the Lyman Copeland Draper Papers on microfilm at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. It's easy to see how Lyman Draper could find himself within the throes of "research rapture," captivated by the amazing frontier tales found in this collection.

Anyone who has taken on the task of writing history invariably reaches a point in the search for information when the amount of material is so overwhelming it becomes mesmerizing. In my own research of John Sevier, I have compiled an immense bibliography of primary and secondary sources and have read many accounts of John Sevier's life. I know exactly how Lyman Draper must have felt while corresponding with John Sevier's contemporaries as he was trying to gather every scrap of information that he could in order to preserve the memory of this important time and place in our nation's history.

I know through first-hand experience how easily distracted one can get when you begin researching a subject where one source leads to another, and yet another. Sometimes you can lose sight of the fact that the intended purpose of your research is to ultimately write a work of scholarship. Thankfully, my publishing contract with The History Press puts me on a specific time table for the completion of my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, so I don't plan to fully give in to "research rapture" anytime soon. But my empathy for Lyman Draper will remain.

Selected Sources:

Gordon Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon blogs about archives, local history, genealogy, and social media advocacy for archives and cultural heritage organizations. His forthcoming book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.