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…

Why Is That Archivist Stealing My Pen? Libraries vs. Archives (Writers Doing Research)

20140129_124853The other day I had a behind-the-scenes tour of a large archives.  (Later I ate at a Kurdish restaurant – hence the pic.  I love food even more than I love research.)  We walked into one of the storage areas and it was like walking into the Hall of Prophecy at the Ministry of Magic.  Instead of swirling orbs, however, there were miles and miles of boxes containing all kinds of records, carefully organized and cataloged.  (There was also a fork lift that employees use to retrieve boxes – sadly, they wouldn’t let me drive it.  Sad for me, that is.  Not so sad for them.)

The tour got me reflecting on the differences between libraries and archives.  This might be second nature to some of you, but whenever I take my students to visit our local archives, most of them comment later that they had no idea that the archives even existed, much less what an archives was.  (And at least 2 or 3 each semester swear they are going to become archivists – score!)

Here’s what I outline for my students.  In short, libraries

  • provide access to materials you can find in other libraries and bookstores
  • permit you to check out most materials
  • shelve materials by call numbers (usually the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress Classification System)
  • have open stacks, meaning you can walk among the books and other materials, retrieve materials yourself and browse

To find out what’s in a library, search for materials using their online catalogs (or OPACs, if you want to get your library nerd on – this stands for online public access catalog).

Archives, on the other hand

  • provide access to unique materials that relate directly to the organization that houses the archives.  A college archives might contain yearbooks, meeting minutes, copies of on-campus publications, photographs, recordings, etc.  A state archives will have all kinds of materials related to the state.
  • require materials to be handled in-house, usually in a space called a reading room and under supervision of a archives employees
  • have closed stacks, meaning that archives employees bring materials to you; you can’t go to the shelves yourself

In archives, you usually search for materials using online catalogs  and finding aids.  Finding aids are documents (online and/or in print) that describe the contents of specific collections.  Remember the boxes I mentioned above?  Finding aids help you learn what’s in those boxes.  You might learn in the archives catalog that the Julie K. Gilbert collection consists of three boxes.  When you consult the finding aid for the Julie K. Gilbert collection, the finding aid will tell you that box one contains notes from Stone’s Throw into the Deepbox two contains assorted personal papers and box three contains Bruce Springsteen memorabilia.  For example.  Depending on your research interests, you can request one, two or three boxes.

Archives also tend to have strict rules for entering the reading room. (Some libraries might still kick it old school with shushing librarians and no food, but my library is a social hub on campus.)   These rules are in place to protect the materials from damage or theft, not because archivists are power-hungry control freaks.  (At least not the ones I know.)

Common rules include:

  • No food or drink
  • Pencil and/or laptop but no pen
  • No coats, purses, computer bags, briefcases (most archives provide lockers or other secure storage areas)

There are often rules about photocopying, handling materials (only take one folder out of a box at times) and the amount of materials you can request at one time.  Fortunately archives employees are usually very friendly folks who are happy to walk new researchers through the process.  All you have to do is ask.

Later we’ll discuss how to figure out which archives has what you want (with real life examples!) and why writers would even want to use an archives in the first place.

Barrier: You need an excuse to leave the house and eat Kurdish food

Solution: Visit an archives!

There are additional differences between libraries and archives – what did I miss?

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.)