Research Methods

Auctions, Sales, and Antique Stores

As a frugal Yankee and inveterate collector, Warren turned to local estate auctions, sales, and antique stores to not only gather artifacts but also information about artifacts. Eyeing an unfamiliar implement or other tool, he would question the elderly farmers in attendance about its use. In this way, his knowledge of pre-industrial agricultural practices and home industries expanded beyond what he could find in books and other written sources and supplemented his discoveries in the field. During the southern Indiana field school, he and his students frequently visited yard sales and antique stores. He made regular trips to the Crutcher Antique Show in Indianapolis, where high prices sent him home empty-handed, not empty-pocketed. Bloomington’s Theta Antique Show was another favorite. Like most collectors, he thrilled to discover at cheap prices treasures that dealers failed to correctly identify or appreciate.

Memory from Gary Stanton:

"Even before I enrolled as a student at Indiana University, Tom and Betsy Adler had initiated me to the Saturday morning ritual of estate auctions, either at homes around southern Indiana or at the Armory down old highway 37. There, I recall, was the first time that I was introduced to Dr. Roberts, industriously sniffing out old tools and mentally cataloguing the other implements that were laid out for us by Colonel Gene Williams, Billy and their assistants. Dr. Roberts would pick up a broad axe and quickly give a lesson in its use, showing that the eye of the blade and the bent of the haft produced an offset to allow one to stand beside the log and split off the slabs of wood, and he would remind whomever was listening that broadaxes were not used for chopping! Soon the auction would start and Dr. Roberts would hone in on acquiring artifacts cheaply. Gathering in the instruments of his research, examples for presentation, or good bargains (as any Yankee Trader will do) but which might later be used in trade for more interesting objects of higher worth."

Recording Material Culture

“Do as I say, not as I do” seems to sum up the disparity between what Warren espoused and what he practiced in his own fieldwork. Student participants in the southern Indiana field school kept organized journals, field notes, lists of contacts, and indexed photographs and slides which have made their way into the archives. Warren’s field notes, for the most part, are scrawled on the backs of mimeographed hymn sheets, paper napkins, auction bidder cards, and other odd bits of paper. Photographs are not dated or identified, or identified only minimally. Floor plans of buildings are rough sketches. Location maps and tape recordings and their transcriptions do not exist. He had an organizational system that worked for him—he could pull out a file drawer and retrieve a wanted photo.

Memory from Gary Stanton:

"What I remember most that contrasts with the approach to moving buildings when necessary today is how cavalier the documentation of the building was before the demolition began. In part this is because at the time we were focused on the object—the hewn logs—while ethical practice today would focus on documenting the relationship of the parts. Indeed dismantling as a method of treatment of historic resources had been judged inappropriate by international professionals in the 1930s, but folklorists working with these small and insignificant structures played by different rules. This is not to praise the modern preservation practice of restoration—ironically just as much fabric is lost in those processes, because in the end what is stressed is the look of the building upon completion of the process. But how we would have reproduced the interior appearance of the house when we had disposed of the exterior siding and the interior plaster without recording any of the features is a secret known only to Wally [Sullivan] and Dr. Roberts."

About Warren E. Roberts

"Ideally, the data to be recorded on a building should be so complete that the building could be reproduced down to the last detail in case it were destroyed. Recording this much data on even an average house, however, would require many days of work. From a practical standpoint, the type of research that is being undertaken can dictate the amount of detail to be recorded. One must always bear in mind, however, that other workers may make use of one’s recordings and that each generation of folklorists has tended to be critical of the preceding generation because it has not included enough detail in its recordings. It is certainly wise to err on the side of being too detailed than to err in recording too little detail."

Warren Roberts, “Recording Material Culture” in Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, 436.