Research tip #1: Marry a librarian

For more on researching for fiction, go to the main research page


I’ve been hanging out in libraries since I was a kid, and I was a regular at my town’s public library during high school. My first year of college, I was commuting 40 minutes to school and had a huge gap between classes my first semester; with no dorm room or home to return to between classes, I did the only thing that felt natural to me and I hung out in the library. A lot. Sometimes six hours a day. And I wasn’t sleeping in there — I was reading books, not just fiction but nonfiction too, usually researching arcane and ridiculous subjects in addition to my serious scholarly pursuits. My habits didn’t change when I met the woman I would later marry, because she took a work study job in the library, which just meant I hung out in there more.

So I got to know a lot about libraries and librarians. I knew the card catalog inside and out (that’s right — we still had one when I was in college, though they transitioned to an online system before I graduated). I knew the vertical files and the atlas room. I’d been inside the archives and even the dim basement storage affectionately nicknamed “the catacombs.” The librarians and library staff all knew me by sight; most knew me by name. And I knew where to look for most kinds of information (or thought I did at the time), and I had already learned the most valuable lesson of research: when in doubt, ask a librarian!

(That bears repeating: ASK A LIBRARIAN!)

I didn’t set out to marry a librarian, really. But it makes a lot of sense that I did marry one, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Better still — and I say this objectively, based on a lifetime of hanging out in libraries and chatting with librarians, as well as on a professional career understanding my own research needs — I was lucky enough to marry one of the best librarians I’ve ever worked with. I know that if I have a pressing research need, I can call or text or e-mail my wife, and she can find the answer. Most of the time, she’ll find more information than I was even looking for, or better information than I was looking for, and more often than not, she’ll have pointed me toward that information by the end of the day. More than once she’s tracked down truly arcane information I’d spent two whole days looking for, and I swear (I’m not making this up), she’s found it inside of five minutes.

Librarians are like that, or the good ones are, anyway. It’s what they’re trained for; it’s why they have advanced degrees (technically speaking, you cannot claim to be a librarian without at least a masters in library science). And it’s why, if you plan to focus on your own writing without getting too bogged down in research, it’s going to be a good idea to marry a librarian.

Okay, I know. There are only so many librarians in the world, so maybe you’re not going to be fortunate enough to marry one. But you can still make friends. I was friendly with all the librarians I worked with long before I fell in love with one, and they were always helpful, because any good librarian will view his or her job as a service profession. Sure, all librarians collect information, and it’s a small step from collecting to hoarding, and yes, most librarians have some professional obligation to preserve and protect the information they collect. But for most librarians, the main reason they’re collecting and preserving that information in the first place is so we, the public, can use it. That means their primary concern on any given day is to help you find the best information in the fastest, most painless way possible. So if you can’t marry a librarian, make friends with one.

And don’t say you don’t know any librarians! Head to your nearest library and meet one. Walk up to the reference desk. Say, “Hi, are you a librarian?” (The person on the desk might be a staff member or a student worker, so it’s helpful to ask.) If they say yes, tell them, “I’m a writer, and I’m going to need a lot of help doing research.  I don’t need any help right this second, but I wanted to meet you so I’d know where to come in the future.” Smile when you say this. Offer to shake hands. Bring the librarian chocolate. And thank the librarian, frequently and sincerely.

But meeting a librarian isn’t enough. To get the most out of the relationship — and out of your fiction — you also have to . . . say it with me now . . . ask a librarian. Which means you need to know what to ask.

I said in the previous post that the first step to writing historical fiction is to write the fiction. Get a story down, or at least an outline. Have some sense of where you’re going with this piece.  Put in your share of “butt in the chair” time. Because the best way to get the most help out of a librarian is to know what you’re looking for in the first place, and to know what you’re looking for, you need to start the writing.

But let’s say you’ve got a draft started — or even just an outline. Let’s say you’re writing about the 19th-century grave robbers known as “resurrectionists” (as did the delightful Hannah Tinti, in her novel The Good Thief), and you find yourself stuck in a passage about the process of robbing graves. So, first things first: Do the research yourself. Librarians love it when you’ve made a little effort on your own, because any good librarian, like any good detective, is going to start with the simplest solutions, which means that if you’ve eliminated some of the basic steps of research before approaching a librarian, the librarian will be able to move that much more quickly to the really juicy stuff you couldn’t find on your own. These basic steps will depend on your own skills as a researcher (see tomorrow’s entry for more details), so I won’t go into those here.  Your process is your own.

But let’s say you’ve now done a little of the preliminary work yourself, you’ve looked where you can think to look and found some good stuff but you want more.  So you get in touch with the librarian. Personally, I love libraries — I view them as sanctuaries, academic temples worthy of the highest reverence — and I prefer to physically visit the actual buildings when I can. But this is the digital age and librarians — who are by definition as up to date as anyone can be in the Information Age — are happy to work with you over the phone, via e-mail, or even in a chat session. (While working on my Civil War novel, I started looking for information on the bayou in the mid-1800s, and I e-mailed the community library in Cameron Parish, Louisiana — which was all but wiped out by Hurricane Rita back in 2005 — and the librarian there was not only quick to respond but provided me with some extremely helpful information. Shout out to the wonderful Dede Sanders!) The capabilities will vary by library, but the process is the same regardless of the medium you choose.

What will happen is what my wife (and any other librarian) calls the “reference interview.” And, like any interview, you should come to it at least a little prepared, which means whatever work you’ve done until now you should be prepared to describe to the librarian. Gather those materials, or at least remember what you have managed so far on your own, and then contact your librarian. (My wife recommends calling or e-mailing and making an appointment. “We love people who make appointments!” she tells me. “Also, you might find out there’s a subject specialist — especially at big public libraries or academic libraries — if you inquire about appointments.”)

First, tell the librarian, as specifically as you can, what you’re looking for. As my wife says, “We would want the same thing from a fiction writer as a person who is without a job and needs to look for job resources: a clear understanding of what they need to find out. That’s really what it boils down to.” In our example, you could tell the librarian that you’re looking for information on resurrectionists, but that’s an awfully broad term, and unless the librarian asks you to be more specific, you could wind up with information on early Christianity, modern religious cults, body snatchers, zombies, even a Massachusetts rock band or a German metal band. So it’s best to be specific: “I’m writing a book on grave robbers in the 19th century, who were sometimes called ‘resurrectionists,’ and I’m trying to find out what processes they used to steal body parts.”

Then you explain what you’ve done so far. “I’ve looked on Wikipedia using these search terms . . . .” “I checked the card catalog and used these search terms . . . .” “I tried searching article databases in journals of medical history, using these terms . . . .” (It’s always good to explain what terms you’ve used, because in my experience, the librarian will almost always come up with one or two terms you hadn’t thought of, and they’re usually better terms.)

From here, the librarian will probably ask you a series of questions to help narrow down the search (Are you looking for general info or for specific info?  Are you writing about a particular country or geographic region? Are you interested in the legal aspects at all, or the medical aspects, or just the digging up of bodies? And so on . . .). My wife puts it like this: “Lots of times, patrons [that’s us] don’t know what they want to know, so we have to ask a series of questions to get them — and us — to a point where we both know what we’re looking for.”

Also, my wife says, it’s helpful for patrons to know what format of info they’re wanting — books, articles, web sites, etc. If we’re writing an historical account of grave robbing in the 19th century, for example, we would probably want some contemporary accounts, so we could tell the librarian that we’re interested in memoirs about grave robbing, if any exist, and probably some 19th-century newspaper articles that report on grave robbing.

You should expect to work with the librarian as much as possible — it isn’t exactly fair to just dump a load of research in a librarian’s lap and then sit back and twiddle your thumbs — but like any good professional, sometimes the librarian will want to dive into the research themselves or confer with other librarians, and you should also give these professionals the space they need to work. Besides, that will give you some time to get back to the writing (always go back to the writing!) while you’re waiting on your information. (Research should never be an excuse to stop writing, but more on that tomorrow.) Most importantly, never approach a librarian expecting an answer then and there. (This bears repeating, too: Never approach a librarian expecting an answer then and there!) I mentioned earlier that my wife, brilliant professional that she is, is sometimes amazingly fast at finding information.  But only sometimes — there are limits to how fast some information can be found, and good research is like good cooking: it takes time, and it’s always best to be patient. No matter how long a librarian takes to track down the information, just remember that it’s faster than you were finding it on your own.

Finally, expect to learn something. A librarian’s first goal is to help you find information — not to simply give you information. That means that at the end of a search, the librarian will probably explain how she or he found the information. (If she doesn’t, ask her.) Pay attention to this, and take notes if you need to. What she’s doing is teaching you how to find similar information on your own the next time, so as you progress in your novel, you will be able to do more and more of the research for yourself. We researchers, my wife says, should learn to “feel more confident about starting out next time.” The librarians, she adds, are “here as guides, not crutches.”

Now that you’re learning to feel more confident as a researcher, check out tomorrow’s post about knowing your limits!

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