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Friday, July 8, 2011

Libraries Are Not Obsolete

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.

Interlibrary Loan
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.

Reference Librarians
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.

Microfilm and fiche are pretty much gone by the wayside; however, the materials are not. Much has been transferred into digital form such as CD and DVD. Explore. I found a diary of an eighteenth century noblewoman and was able to photocopy the entire thing. Old newspapers are also digitized and stored in libraries. My midwife research taught me a great deal about the respect these women held in society simply through reading obituaries. The nice thing about the digitized versions is that they are searchable.

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.

On-line Databases
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.


  1. Excellent post, Laurie Alice. I really enjoyed reading this. I found the library of congress picture and put that in for you. (Laurie Alice is blind, for those of you who do not know her, which makes her writing all the more God's handiwork!) There is also a picture of some leather-bound books, and of a smiling reference librarian. Thanks for sharing your expertise with us!

  2. That's for some insight in how to use the library. Currently I am without card due to the expense. I have found libraries on line and wondered how I could look at a book they had available. They did require a passcode and I was clueless how to obtain it. I'll check into this more and maybe I'll have to find the $350. for the library card next year.

  3. Great post, Laurie Alice, thanks for sharing it. I love libraries. There is nothing like building good relationships with our librarians. And every reference librarian I've ever contacted for my writing or genealogy research has been great.

  4. One thing I will miss if the digital age takes over too much is the FEEL of a library. I remember going into the stacks at McKeldin at the Univ. of Md. feeling I had access to the world at my finger tips. Somehow a Kindle doesn't do that for me ... although Google does. Your post makes me want to go hang out with my local librarian and pick her brain.

  5. Laurie Alice, You sure know your way around libraries! I'm afraid I learned the hard way - buying a book(s) for only a few pages of info and then having a big bill. Interlibrary loan has saved me and then if I feel I can't live without the book, I buy it if it's not too expensive. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom and resources here. I've often said libraries are the greatest public institution ever! Where else can you still take things home for free?

  6. I think I'm spoiled by the ability to access books online through Google Books, Project Gutenburg, and Archive.org. But you have brought up a very good topic, that there is nothing like going to a library (oh, the lovely scent of old books!) or asking a research librarian for assistance. I'm grateful that you brought this to our attention and such a valuable resource for our research. I'm enjoying your articles on research methods very much. Thank you for sharing your expertise!

  7. What I love about my part time job through college(studying to be a nurse-midwife) allows me to spend my working hours in one of my favorite places the library. I enjoy spending that time around books.

  8. Love the post--love libraries. Another world opens when you call libraries from other towns/cities if you're not able to make a research trip. The librarians know abut their communities and are willing to give you all sorts of "first-hand" information. I've talked to several by phone; especially if you're looking for something rather obscure, they really come through for you. Thanks, Laurie Alice.

  9. For the fifth time, I'm trying to leave a comment that shows up. Not ignoring any of you at all. Have tried several times to leave a message and none show up. And Carrie scolded me for not commenting, so I'm pouting. :-)

    Seriously, I signed in under my GMail account to see if that would help. I can't use Chrome and don't know what else could be the problem, as I'm posting fine to other blogs.

    Anyway, Pat, exactly, librarians in other areas are wonderful resources. Me, I was just a nerdy child who got stuck in the library when I couldn't play the games because I couldn't survive without my thick glasses--Coke bottles people called them, the nicest comment. So I made books and librarians and libraries my friends and love the smell and the feel of real books despite the convenience of the electronic ones.

    Carissa, I'd love to talk to you about your nurse-midwife program. Despite other claims, I think the first profession for women was midwifery.


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