H is for…History

In broad terms, I write what’s known as speculative fiction. Basically, this is an umbrella term encompassing fantasy, science fiction, horror, or anything with elements of the supernatural. While a few of my short fiction pieces (especially the ones about adultery) are straight up “regular” fiction, most everything I write has some aspect of “but that couldn’t really happen.”

Everything’s fair game in my imagination.

Anyway, even though Some Flew North happens entirely in a made up land (but oh so real in my head!), the novel I’m currently revising takes place in a made up town that looks an awful lot like several Minnesota towns. And it draws heavily on state history, especially the history of Blacks in Minnesota.

While I was on sabbatical during the 2013-2014 academic year, I delved deep into this history, reading a number of secondary and primary sources, including monographs and newspapers on microfilm. (Monographs? Microfilm? Oops- see how I just slipped into library talk.)

I was blessed with a flexible schedule and access to the collections at the Minnesota History Center. (I am also blessed with several friends who lived/worked nearby, and who were happy to take lunch breaks at various local restaurants.) I’ve continued the work this year, primarily through exploring federal and state census data (wait, did I just lose you – it’s cooler than it sounds. Kinda).

(Read more about one of my past research trips & a cool coincidence.)

The materials I’ve gathered have informed, inspired and helped shape the novel I’m writing. The historical research I’ve done has grounded the novel by providing natural constraints to wild plot twists. Finally, my characters are also doing their own research, so undertaking the same work helped me write about it from their perspectives.

But, as one of my archivist friends said, “Good luck making federal census data interesting to a teen audience.” We’ll see what my beta readers have to say…

What Did You Just Say? Research Vocabulary (Writers Doing Research)

If you can count on death and taxes, you can also probably count on the fact that doing research can be needlessly complicated sometimes.  Now, I’ve come across the viewpoint that “no one needs libraries because everything’s online” a few too many times in the past few years.  (Hint: it’s not.) This isn’t what I’m talking about in terms of complications, although that attitude has its own troubling set of complications.

What I’m talking about is a convergence of circumstances.  Back in days of yore, when you had to go to a library or archives in person to do your research and there was no online option, the systems worked pretty slick.  You consulted print indexes, like a card catalog or a finding aid, to find out what was in the collection. Call numbers or box numbers helped you locate the actual materials.

If you couldn’t find what you were looking for (or even if you could), you’d talk in person to the librarian or archivist, who could help you navigate further and even help you find materials not located in the building itself, perhaps even shipping them to you via interlibrary loan.

Then the internet came along and blew everything up.  In lots of good ways, let’s be clear, but many of those print navigational systems had a tough time transitioning online.  It’s why subscription databases and online library catalogs are very clunky compared to Google – cataloging and metadata don’t always translate well to users used to phrase and keyword searching.

But here’s the even bigger issue:

  • print indexes
  • finding aids
  • interlibrary loan
  • metadata
  • cataloging

In other words, what did I just say?  Libraries and archives run on specialized vocabulary.  The specialized vocabulary in my discipline creates its own roadblocks and complications.  (You should hang out with me and my colleagues every year or so when we discuss whether or not the phrase “Reference Desk” means anything to students and if not, what should we change it to?  We’ve yet to settle this one…)

 OPAC, records (not the music ones – well, sometimes those, too), microfiche, microform, microfilm (yes, they are different), metadata, institutional repository, finding aid, closed stacks, open stacks…. I could go on and on. (And don’t even get me started on the acronyms.  Librarians love acronyms.)

Fortunately, there are some excellent online resources.  There’s the Glossary of Library and Information Science page at Wikipedia. (And I’m saying that with a straight face – I love Wikipedia.)  There’s also a nifty resource put together by the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) of the American Library Association (ALA) – what did I tell you about the acronyms?

Anyway, ACRL put together a multilingual glossary of library terms.  This page contains a link to library terms in six different languages – perfect for non-native English speakers – as well as a link to definitions in English.

Finally, the Society of American Archivists have a list of archival and records terminology.

Barrier: All that library and archives vocabulary is driving me crazy – and not in a good way!

Solution: Use some of the online resources for definitions.  And this might be hard for some of you – it is for me – ask for help from archivists and librarians.  They don’t bite. (At least not usually.)

Real Life Research: In Which I Meet the Author

In addition to providing support for writers doing research, I want to share some of my own experiences conducting research for my novels. (Read: I want to geek out over all the cool libraries and reading rooms I visit.)

Conducting historical research is a unique experience for me – I’ve been teaching undergraduates how to do research for almost a decade, but I haven’t trekked to an archives myself for years.  (I publish as a librarian, but I mainly do ethnographic research professionally, which doesn’t require much work with historical sources.)

Earlier this week I went to the Minnesota History Center to use their library.  First, can we talk about how gorgeous this building is?  I walked up the stairs to the main atrium and thought for a second that I’d wandered onto the set of Game of Thrones.  (So, anyone seen Jaime Lannister?  Anyone?  You just tell him where I am when he comes looking for me.)

I got my library card and even managed to work the storage lockers. (You’re not allowed to bring bags, purses, computer carrying cases, etc. into the reading room, which is standard security practice to make sure no one walks off with any of the materials.)  I stopped at the Reference Desk and the friendly librarian explained how the material request slips work.  (I resisted the urge to blurt, “I’m a librarian, too!  See my ALA card!”)

Soon I was happily ensconced in a pile of bound journals and pamphlets.  I was in the middle of reading about an almost-lynching in St. Paul in 1895 when a gentleman approached my table.  He said he noticed I what I was reading, then he pointed to the byline and said, “That’s me.”  How cool is that!? (I mean the meeting the author part – the near-lynching was terrifying.)  We had a lovely chat about my research and he suggested a few additional sources that might be helpful.

As I paged through folders and articles, I couldn’t help but overhear other conversations in the reading room.  Librarians were helping junior high students (and a few parents) with History Day presentations.  A few tables away from me, two women realized they had met at a workshop and then launched into a conversation about the genealogy research they were each pursuing.  I was struck by the unique and odd community that springs up around research.  Our paths might never cross again, but on one cold winter morning, a tenuous but real connection formed in the reading room.  I was glad to be a part of it.