Today’s guest post is by Anne E. Johnson. Anne, based in Brooklyn, has written several novels and nearly 100 short stories. She is also an arts journalist.
For someone who loves research, those are four of the saddest words in English. Somehow the belief has spread that any information you need—about anything—is available by simply typing into a search engine. Yet libraries still exist. Don’t be one of those people who ignores them.
You’re wondering why you should bother. What could some underfunded collection of books sticky with other people’s fingerprints possibly offer that the internet can’t? Glad you asked.
One of the best things about going to the library is what it can do for your work. As someone who has experience pitching both historical fiction manuscripts and journalistic article ideas, trust me: you want to stand out from the crowd. Anybody can Google. Not everybody can coax gems from library stacks. Potential agents and publishers can see those gems gleaming, and they’ll like what they see.
Another great reason to go to a library is psychological. It’s good for your brain and it’s good for your spirit. Let me count the ways:
There’s a lot to be gained from being near lots of physical books. When you wander along a library bookcase, looking for a call number, you scan the spines of hundreds of nearby volumes. Guaranteed, you’re going to find some amazing stuff that you didn’t know existed.
And there’s also the possibility to see physical documents that almost no one else has ever been in contact with. Primary sources – letters, diaries, drafts of plays or musical compositions, captain’s logs, or anything else that is an original representation of a time or place -- are absolute gold if you write history or historical fiction, or just want to jazz up something with cool details.
A research library in a big city or at a university is the best place to find such things, but even your neighborhood public library might offer high-quality scans of rare documents. Libraries subscribe to scholarly databases that an individual can’t afford to buy access to.
To use these databases, you will probably need a library card. Some might be accessible at home once you log in as a card-holder, but some will require you to show up at the library and use their computers.
If you really want to get a lot out of a day at the library, put in some time before you go. This is where the internet and physical libraries become one: You can use the library’s catalog from the comfort of your couch!
Your prep experience can be practically paperless. Online catalogs allow the option of digitally bookmarking entries you’re interested in, or emailing them to yourself. Personally, I always make a working bibliography of every resource I want to explore, and I print it out and bring it with me so I can scribble notes on it (things like “out until Aug. 31” or “saw it, but not that helpful”).
And remember not to limit yourself to looking up books. Libraries also have periodicals, which nowadays are usually entirely electronic. The online catalog will probably include a way to search those magazines and journals for your topic. And then there are documentary films or historical radio broadcasts that might help you.
Your list of resources doesn’t have to be perfect. You just need a starting point. Once you spend some time in the stacks, you’ll add some items and cross others out.
Oh, and don’t forget to check the hours before you go, so you don’t waste a trip.
You walk in with your list. Now what? Libraries post maps to show where each call number can be found. Often you can snag a nice little bookmark with that info printed on it, and carry it with you. Pick a call number from your bibliography to start with, then go looking for that book.
If the book isn’t where it’s supposed to be, or if you can’t figure out where the call number is kept, or if you’re just feeling overwhelmed by the whole process…don’t despair. There’s a living, breathing app for that.
That human over there is called a “librarian.” Approach him or her with a smile, and they’ll give you all the help you need. These folks went to school for this, so their skills go well beyond answering “Where is this book?” and “Where are the restrooms?” You could tell them what you’re working on, and see if they have any ideas! And, if you’re in a research library, there might even be a librarian who specializes in your topic.
If you’re looking at rare or primary documents, the key is patience. Whether you’re lucky enough to get to handle the actual documents (a rare thrill, indeed) or you are instructed to look at an online database, take your time. Obviously, rare documents can be damaged, so don’t flip pages like it’s a cheap mystery novel you picked up at the airport.
But more than that, remember that this is a special privilege. Savor it. Explore not just the words on the page, but what the pages are made of, what kind of ink and font is used. Take careful notes about everything you see and feel. Using all your senses will inform whatever you’re writing later.
Need a photocopy of something you can’t check out of the library? Depending on what it is, that might not be allowed. But you have that nifty phone in your pocket; photograph the pages you need!
If the material is not rare, you might be able to take it home for two or three weeks. You’ll need a library card (a good idea anyway, as we’ve discussed, so you have full access to all materials). More and more e-books are also available to check out. You order them via the library’s catalog, and they’ll show up on your e-reader, and disappear after the due date.
Hey, I’m not knocking Google. There’s no disputing that internet search engines are ingenious tools that have changed the world. Still, sitting at your laptop is sometimes not enough if you want to understand a topic deeply. You can’t find what isn’t there, and you’ll never know what you’re missing unless you change how and where you look. So, next time you need to do research, give the ol’ library a chance – it might end up being your new favorite place to hang out.
What do you love most about libraries? How have libraries helped your writing craft? Let us know in the comments!
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