Blogger: Michelle Ule
Location: Books & Such main office, Santa Rosa, Calif.
“My writing has to support more than my research habit,
but I love to curl up with a book about some dusty corner of history.”
Once I’ve found basic information electronically, I like to move over to books.
I start with Amazon.com.
Typing in “Luther Burbank,” I have 826 options to choose from. I tend to work backwards, from the most recent until I can’t stand the hunt anymore. This provides an overview of the most recently written book about a subject–which is important when I write a proposal. Depending on my angle, I may type a more narrow topic, say “Burbank potatoes,” into Amazon’s search engine as well.
I use Amazon for a bibliographic overview and then head over to the local library’s web-based catalog. I reserve the books I want, and I’m on my way. (Our public library had 1,400+ works about Luther Burbank).
I’ve recently been researching events in the 19th century, and some books are difficult to find. That quest has taken me to nearby Sonoma State University’s (SSU) Charles M. and Jean Schultz Library (with its fantastic Snoopy retrieval system). Luther Burbank turns up in 57 volumes at the university library, but I can also search for him in scholarly journals, dissertations, theses and microfilm.
In the recent case of my own project, I’ve had to travel–at least mentally–further afield.
Through online library catalogs, I learned a university library back east has an entire collection of papers from the principals involved in my story–including a diary. I knew I had to get my hands on that diary and examine all the other items in the collection: 650 in all.
Before I became too involved in my plans to travel back east, I learned the special collection section was closing for renovation, and the collection would be unavailable for four months.
But that diary would give voice to my character . . .
On a chance, I sent an e-mail to the librarian, explaining what I sought. He wrote back to say I was out of luck for examining the collection physically, but the whole thing had been microfilmed.
Did you hear me screaming? I drove directly to the Sonoma County Library and ordered the microfilm. When I explained why, the local librarian joined me in my enthusiasm.
That left me with only one major book unaccounted for. I had to read it, and then my primary research would be finished. A first-person narrative, this book also would give voice to another major character. The SSU librarian was helpful and sent me a link listing all the local places that owned a physical copy of the book: Pacific Union College, UC Berkley, even the San Francisco Public Library (“Hey, maybe you could get that through Inter-Library loan?”).
The book is 400 pages long and densely written.
I went to Google Books (FYI, 223,000 references to Luther Burbank) where I could read excerpts, but not the full book. I couldn’t download the book to my computer, so that wasn’t going to work.
I went back to Amazon to check the price of buying a copy.
Free download to my Kindle. 🙂
Even the SSU librarian was shocked. “How can that be?”
The book was first published 150 years ago and is out of print. I guess.
In the past, I’ve had good luck with Google Books, but the March 2011 settlement seriously cut into how much material is posted online. As a writer, I’m delighted; as a researcher, I’m disappointed. Old books I could access easily in the past are now off limits, while a 1986 book I happily purchased is posted almost entirely on Google Books. I don’t know how they decide how much to post.
But Google Books is an excellent place to do obscure research, adjusting your search criterion as narrowly as possible and using many different variations. If nothing else, it will suggest other places to look for information.
What magic findings have you made in librarires electronically? How do you handle electronic libraries? Is there anything researchers should be wary of?
And did anyone notice some of the real heroes are the LIBRARIANS?