What’s the value of research?

My “research life” has turned into one of sitting in front of a computer. Behind me and on the sides of me, are shelves loaded with thousands of dollars of books. But to be honest, I don’t find myself swiveling in my chair to grab one of those treasured resources as much as I used to. Instead, I am relying more and more on my computer.

A Sign of Getting Old

I love those Progressive Insurance ads on television about taking classes to “not become your parents.” I confess, I use them as secret guides to staying young — I no longer let out a loud groan when I sit down, and I do resist sharing my wisdom with strangers in the tool department at Home Depot. I have been seen, however, assisting someone back out of a parking spot…Old habits do die hard.

But in our world of buying, selling, collecting, and researching military relics and vehicles, what is the biggest sign we are getting old? Well, that would have to be criticizing how someone younger than us approaches the hobby. 

I admit, It’s often hard not to be critical. When some teenager puts on an M43 jacket and a Vietnam-era M1 to pose for a selfie that he then posts to a Facebook Group and asks, “How’s my impression for a D-Day reenactment,” it is hard to not respond…boy, is it hard not to respond!

Another example became self-evident the other day when someone asked me a question in the last 30 seconds of an eBay auction for a pair of US WWI collar discs I was selling. “Can you guarantee, 100%, that they were made during WWI?” the potential bidder asked.  I know some people are just learning, but I couldn’t help myself from replying, “If you can’t recognize an original WWI disc, you probably shouldn’t be bidding.” 

So much for my New Year’s resolution of trying not to be such a jerk.

What I — and a lot of fellow collectors my age — are failing to acknowledge is that the way people learn is changing. And certainly, this last year of isolation has accelerated the change.

I grew up with good guidance from old-timers  who encouraged me to spend money on books and study them. That advice has served me (and many of my contemporaries) very well over the years.

But, apparently, that is not the pattern new collectors are following into the hobby. Instead, new collectors and history enthusiasts go to what they know: Their phones, tablets, or computers to search the Internet for answers. And while the internet has made some of us a bit research-lazy, it also has opened many, many doors to thorough examination of topics.

Cover of Standard Catalog of Civil War Firearms by John F. Graf, published in 2009 https://amzn.to/37GcRRF

Published in 2009, I thought this book would be my "swan song."  It turned out to be more of "dead duck." 

For example, years ago, I wrote a book, The Standard Catalog of Civil War Firearms. It was a labor of love. I told my partner, “If this is the last book I write, I will be proud to go to my grave knowing that I authored the Standard Catalog of Civil War Firearms.” Well, the truth of the matter is, I am not so proud anymore. The book flopped big-time. One printing, and of that, the bulk went off to bargain-rate discounters. What happened?

I could blame the Internet, but the truth of the matter probably is: The book just isn’t as good as I thought it was. But, I knew I had GOOD research in it. 

My list of US weapons inspectors up to and through the Civil War was more complete than any in print. I only included weapons that were known to have been purchased by states in quantity — no fantasy “Indian Brown Bess muskets” that might have been carried by Confederates…just hard data. If an invoice existed that the State of Mississippi, or even Colonel Beauregard Du Pont Van Cleve, purchased 10 Indian Brown Bess muskets to issue to the cook detachment of the 99th Florida Panhandlers, I included it. But if no documentation could support the actual contract and delivery of a particular weapon, it was not included — I felt it was important to hone the hobby back down to known entities and not include wishful thinking.

Regardless, the book flopped, went out of print, and I sat back for the next several years, licking the wounds to my ego.

SHARING THE SAME INFORMATION THROUGH ANOTHER APPROACH

Meanwhile, the ownership of Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine changed hands a couple of times. And as all of you in the historic military vehicle world know, “It isn’t yours until you tinker with it…” And boy, did the new ownership tinker!

JAG helping granddaughter fish.

Taking the time to mentor means you will probably drown a lot of worms before a child hooks into something that lasts a lifetime.

First and foremost, they had us revamp our web site and the way we share information. One of the most important things I learned was, “If you don’t have room for all the information in print, the web site gives you a chance to include it and update it when you learn something new.”

If you have read any of our articles on MilitaryTrader.com, you will have experienced this new approach. Articles that had appeared in black and white on rather iffy paper in Military Trader are now available online in clear, bright colors (being a collector helps. I generally post high resolution images t because I know you will want to zoom in on details). 

As I get more photos and data on historic military vehicles, I update those articles, as well. It is most evident, I think, in our “Buyer’s Guide” coverage of various vehicles where prices are updated to reflect current trends

Unlike any time in history, I am able to update information as I get it. I don’t have to wait for a second printing, new edition, or a compilation of articles to fix my mistakes, add new data, or share recently obtained photos.

Realizing that I have this new super power, I recently revisited my old Civil War firearms files. I opened the documents of what I thought was my best section in the book: the variants of the Model 1841 Mississippi Rifle. I looked it over and thought, “Hey, I can post this online with all the information I had gathered.” 

It took several nights, but I finally put together an article that I think stands up to the best scholarship on the variants of the iconic Civil War firearm. But of course, others will be quick to point out what I have wrong, confused, or just misinterpreted. No worries! I can fix it in real time! The scholarship is a live entity, not an enshrined crypt of knowledge bound between two covers.

(Was the point of this blog just a shameless plug for my article? Heck no. But, if you are curious, it IS located HERE .)

My point of all this discussion is simple: Don’t be so fast to jump on someone who is establishing their historic knowledge baseline via the Internet. There is a LOT of good material out there. 

For example, check out one of my favorites to read and update: Gras Bayonets and Rifles of the Belgian Army. There are probably about eight of us in the world who give a rat’s tail about Gras bayonets used by the Belgians, but I love this article. It is the down-dirty, nitty-gritty that we would NEVER find in a magazine or book. The internet provides the opportunity for us to share the minutia that we love about our hobby.

Another favorite that I probably send out five times a week to newbies who don’t know their MB from their GP is “Identifying Which Model of Military Jeep.” 

Rather than explain the differences in a lengthy email, I send a link to this article — an article that I frequently update with new photos and information. I couldn’t print the article in Military Vehicles Magazine because it is too basic for our readers. Our web site, however, provides us with a venue to serve new people just becoming interested in the nuances that make our hobby so much fun.

So, back to the original intent of this blog. The next time someone posts a question to a forum, Facebook group, or even at a show about what is the best source of information, let them know that there are many: Both in print and online. Chances are, no matter which approach they take to learning about the hobby, they will be encouraged and follow your wise, sage advice that can only be gained through years and experience.

Preserve the Memories,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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