Why the Librarian Is Your Story's Best Friend

This post comes from Senior Producer Mindy, whose favorite college job was shelving pamphlets in the University of Minnesota's Government Publications Library.

A few weeks ago I had the absolute joy of attending the session Write Your Own Hamilton: Finding Your Story in Libraries at NerdCon Stories, a conference dedicated to the art of storytelling in all its forms. Research is my forte, but I have spent so much time hunting for facts behind a computer that I'd forgotten about the magical wizards known as librarians. I love watching professionals work at their craft, and as they answered audience questions, I was truly in awe of the presenters, Jennifer Burek Pierce (The University of Iowa), Becky Canovan (University of Dubuque), and Colleen Theisen (The University of Iowa).

Professional librarians are a valuable resource to writers—both non-fiction and fiction alike. Here are my key takeaways for using libraries to write stronger stories. Nearly all of the resources I recommend below came from Jennifer, Becky, and Colleen.

1. Librarians want to help you!

If I learned nothing else, it was this: Librarians are excited to help you. They have spent years learning how to dig for information and make sense of what they uncover—when you ask for help, you're giving them an exciting puzzle to solve.

No matter what writing problem you're struggling with—finding a clever plot point, painting your story's setting, or finding facts to support your argument—a librarian can get you pointed in the right direction.

2. Great research may involve multiple libraries.

All of the presenters stressed this point: Just ask your question. If you can't visit in person, call or email. It's okay if your question is not perfectly formed and it's okay if you start with the wrong library. We will help you find the next step in your research path.

One of the session's attendees asked about researching sexual assault in Victorian England. Where should she begin, when this was not a crime that was widely reported in that era? Within a matter of moments, the presenters had a list of suggestions: The women themselves may have been prosecuted, look for police records; the women may have been hospitalized or institutionalized as hysterical, look for medical records; women who became pregnant as a result of their assaults may have been sent to homes for unwed mothers. With each suggestion, they listed the name of a library in England that could assist.

Librarians know other librarians and are happy to refer you to their colleagues. When you ask your question, it's perfectly acceptable to ask, "Is there a better or different place I should look?" or "Who is the best person to ask for help with this?" You don't have to start with a university or a special collection library (more on those in a moment). It's okay to walk into your public library and ask the librarian "Can you help me figure out where to start?" They will be thrilled you've asked.

3. Your vocabulary matters.

When you are conducting research online, a few terms will help you narrow down your results.

  • If you are researching an historical topic, search for a special collection library (abbreviated spec. coll.). These libraries have a deep understanding of the topic and will likely have books and artifacts you can't find elsewhere.
  • Search for your topic + libguides. Libguides are a collection of resources that a librarian has compiled on a particular topic. Here's a libguide from Princeton University on electricity.
  • Finding aids tell you what the library has in its archive, often used with old or delicate materials that are not in open circulation. Think of it like a list on the outside of a file box. If you're looking for something specific, try searching your library's list of finding aids. Here's the University of Iowa's finding aid for a collection of photographs curated by Frederick Kent.
  • When conducting research, work to understand your topic's literary warrant, or the language used at the time and in the place. What we call a "car" today was once a "horseless carriage." To take the presenters' example, that which I as a Midwesterner call "pop," my Californian colleagues call "soda."

4. There's more to libraries than books.

When I think about libraries, I primarily think of books. Many libraries also house collections of maps, photographs, and audio/visual resources. All of these can help you create a sense of character, place, and context for your story. Here are a few places to start.

  • Are you trying to name a character? Look to government resources like the Social Security Administration name index or local historical societies for cemetery and obituary indices. High school and college yearbooks are another great place to look; consult the library in the school of your interest.
  • The Allen County Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana is an amazing resource for genealogy research.
  • Local historical societies are a wealth of information on local history, culture, and customs.
  • Trying to build a sense of place? Look up the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps for your area. They are color-coded by building material and even show the layout of a building's rooms. The New York City directories have been digitized back to 1801.
  • Look at old newspapers, not only for stories that ran, but also for the advertisements. Duke University Libraries has a searchable collection. Ads show you the problems people were focused on, and a product you know well today may have had an entirely different use when your story takes place. Did you know that Listerine was once sold as a dandruff remedy?
  • For a good time, just start exploring huge repositories of information like HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, and the Smithsonian.

And remember: When in doubt, go to the library.