By Laurie Alice Eakes
With so much data and so many books on-line, public libraries seem to have become places for community gatherings and children’s story hour rather than sites for research. For many authors, even getting to the library may prove a challenge due to distance, small children to tow around, or simply the effort of getting into a car and driving there (we will ignore the inconvenience of having to put on respectable clothing and at least a dab of lipstick). Budget cuts in most municipalities these days have also curtailed library hours and resources; however, to dismiss a library as a research tool is a mistake. In the next few paragraphs, I will talk about some reasons why such as finding rare books, getting access to amazing old records, and on-line databases.
When I was a student at Virginia Tech, I had to take classes in research methods. At least a third of the class ended up devoted to how to use the library. The digital age had arrived, and blended with the age of paper and ink. In its simplest form, Interlibrary Loan had become easier. One could go to www.worldcat.org and find out who had that special book you really longed to read, could no longer buy, or cost $250.00 used on EBay. Your local library can obtain these kinds of books for you. Often, small fees are involved for mailing, and some of these books cannot be removed from the library. When researching my midwife paper that turned into a series of novels, I found books from as far away as Nottingham, England and as old as the 1670s. No, that book did not leave the library. I could, however, copy it. Yes, many of these books are in Google Books now, and, interestingly, two of my best midwifery resources are still not digitized. Too rare perhaps?
I’ll add a note here that authors can look on Worldcat to see if their books are in libraries, but don’t get depressed if only a few show up as having been purchased. I know of many libraries that have my books that do not show up in the on-line catalogue. Still, it’s fun to look.
So, before you drop a lot of money to find that resource that you may only use for ten pages, but has the only resource for what you exactly need, use your library for Interlibrary Loan. But do make sure it’s in the right language. I ended up with one book that was entirely in Latin. Fortunately, my graduate assistant was fluent in Latin and found and translated the data I needed. That was wonderfully serendipitous, and isn’t likely to happen often.
They love to be asked questions. At least this has been my experience. No matter where I have lived, no matter in what library I have walked in search of some obscure detail, the reference librarian has treated me like I’m her new best friend. Usually they are alone behind a desk in an obscure corner fielding questions about where the drinking fountain can be found. What they really want is to have someone say, “Can you tell me what the marriage license regulations were in New Jersey in 1825?” They’re not likely to know, and they will know where to find it.
Reference sections are full of books that can’t be removed from the library such as atlases of what a place looked like 200 years ago, books of laws no longer laws, but were at the time you need, and archives you may have to wait for librarians to retrieve and sign away your firstborn to so much as glance at. Especially if you are doing local research, your library is an invaluable resource. Even the tiniest towns with libraries have a local history section.
And let us not forget the availability of things beyond the budgets of most of us like the Oxford English Dictionary. Most libraries have access to it in print and/or digital form, or even on-line.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is an author’s dream and treasure-trove. More and more libraries, even little ones, are obtaining access to on-line databases. This includes the OED, newspapers from present, to back a couple hundred years, and, yes, old photographs. When researching Better than Gold, I discovered a wealth of data on the history of telegraphy through the on-line databases, including pictures of old telegraph machines.
The Library of Congress web site also has a wealth of information including old newspapers, maps, photographs and paintings, and articles on historical subjects. If you have a few hours to waste that will not end up a waste, explore www.loc.gov.
Your library will require a library card for using Interlibrary Loan, and sometimes this costs a small fee, too, and on-line databases generally require a password. These are easily obtained often without ever leaving your home.
So in this age of the Internet’s resources and treasure troves like Google Books, do not forget that your library has often otherwise unobtainable information you will find useful in your historic research. One of these I learned was the knowledge of history of a librarian, who led me down a path of how to research using people, even if most of your subjects are no longer alive. But that’s for another article.