word craft


Once a Librarian Always a Librarian
(Even When He’s a Writer)

The word “research,” enters the Eng­lish vocab­u­lary in the late 16th Cen­tu­ry. Hard­ly a sur­prise since that was when what is known as the “Sci­en­tif­ic Rev­o­lu­tion,” was emerg­ing in the west­ern world. But even today research remains some­thing of a mys­tery to many. My read­ers often ask me how I go about it, sug­gest­ing that it is com­plex and difficult.

Actu­al­ly, it’s quite easy. It just takes time. And, yes, a lit­tle luck. Con­sid­er the adage: “The well-edu­cat­ed per­son is some­one who knows how lit­tle he/she knows.”

That’s a good place to start.

For many years when I was a librar­i­an, I worked at what is now known as the Col­lege of New Jer­sey. One of my tasks was to teach fresh­men how to use the library, this is to say, how to do basic research.

The College of New Jersey Library
The Col­lege of New Jer­sey Library, now the R. Bar­bara Giten­stein Library, Ewing, NJ

When peo­ple start research, my Ref­er­ence Desk expe­ri­ence is that even though peo­ple are look­ing for some­thing spe­cif­ic— “Who was the gen­er­al in charge of Amer­i­can forces at the Bat­tle of Bunker Hill?” —they usu­al­ly ask for the most gen­er­al resource: “Do you have any books on Amer­i­can History?”

Instead, if you are search­ing for spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion, con­sid­er a method­ol­o­gy that looks like an invert­ed pyra­mid, the pointy end is the most gen­er­al and briefest infor­ma­tion. That’s where to begin. You do not want too many facts. You want to start with some­thing short and basic that gives you the most basic sur­vey. That will pro­vide con­text. Then slow­ly ADD to that basic stuff, so that new ideas add meaning—and no small point—you can remem­ber it.

No sur­prise, when I under­take a new his­tor­i­cal nov­el project, I cre­ate my own library. Liv­ing as I do in the remote Rocky Moun­tains the inter­net is my friend. There are any num­ber of inter­net-used book resources such as Bib­lio, Abe­books (owned by Ama­zon), and Book­find­er, a site that guides you to (inter­net) sources of used books and (no small point) the low­est price.

But you don’t have to buy books. There is your local library. When try­ing to learn some­thing Libraries are your best friend. As I once heard some­one say: “Libraries are where his­to­ry remem­bers itself.”

And, more than like­ly, that local library is con­nect­ed to an inter-library loan ser­vice that gives you access (free!) to mil­lions of titles. It will give you access to every­thing.

Trust me. No mat­ter how obscure a top­ic, some­one has writ­ten about it. 

Crispin was run­ning through a for­est. What kind of for­est was that? The Roy­al Forests of Medieval Eng­land informed me.

The Dan­ish immi­grant father in City of Orphans is sad. He sings a song of sor­row for his for­mer coun­try. How do I find such? Dan­ish Immi­grant Songs of the Ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry told me.

How do you unearth such curi­ous­ly (and fas­ci­nat­ing) spe­cif­ic titles? Seek out the most gen­er­al of titles, such as “His­to­ry of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion.” Choose a recent­ly dat­ed book. Get your hands on it. BUT don’t read the text! Read the bib­li­og­ra­phy. That bib­li­og­ra­phy will guide you to hun­dreds of spe­cif­ic titles. Which have their own bib­li­ogra­phies. Guar­an­teed, some­where there will be a cita­tion that ref­er­ences a book (or arti­cle) about the gen­er­al who led the Amer­i­can forces at the Bat­tle of Bunker Hill.

Eure­ka. You have what you were look­ing for.

Hap­py hunt­ing. It’s actu­al­ly fun.

Sin­cere­ly, Avi (not real­ly a retired Librarian)

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