Guest Post: Research, or, Why You Should Start at the Library, by John Klima

John Klima is the Assistant Director of the Waukesha Public Library. He also edits the Hugo Award–winning magazine Electric Velocipede. As of 2010, the magazine has also been nominated for the World Fantasy Award four years in a row. In 2007 Klima edited an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories based on spelling-bee winning words called Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories. Klima edited a reprint anthology of fairy tale retellings called Happily Ever After that came out from Night Shade Books in the Summer of 2011. In 2013, ALA Editions will publish his Readers Advisory book on Steampunk. You can follow him on twitter at @EV_Mag.

It happens to the best of us. We’re working under the guise of everyone’s favorite writing maxim: “Write what you know,” when crap, you run into something you don’t know. What do you do? Do you wing it? Do you skip it and write around it? Do you just stop working on that piece and move onto something else? Do you research the topic to flesh out the details?

Well, given that most of us have never flown in space, fought a dragon, cast a spell, or traveled to an alternate dimension, there are many occasions when you write things you don’t know. But when faced with something that exists—we’ll use circuses as an example—chances are you’d be well served in doing some research. But before you fire up Google, let’s talk a bit about research.

You see, doing research can be difficult. For example, you have a scene set in a circus but you don’t know much about them so you decide to do some research. Where do you start? How long do you look? If you just throw the word ‘circus’ into Google you’ll get things like the Ringling Bros. Circus, a Wikipedia page, Cirque de Soleil, maybe a news link, and another couple million hits.

The Ringling site might be just what you need. The Ringling circus can serve as a backdrop and you’re scene writes itself. Or maybe the Wikipedia page might give you just enough to get through the scene you’re working on; the book’s not set in the circus, just this scene. But then again, it might not. What you need might be more elusive than that.

This is where your local library can help.

Now, I understand that getting to the library isn’t necessarily convenient. The library may not be anywhere near you, it might be open hours that don’t mesh with your schedule, it might not be on a bus route so getting there is difficult, or a multitude of other reasons for why you haven’t been or don’t plan on going to the library. But it’s worth the time and effort to make the trip.

When you arrive, first take a look through the reference collection. Libraries typically have all sorts of reference material that you can read and photocopy at the library. (Unfortunately, you can’t take these books home with you; that’s why I told you to go to the library) In the reference section you’ll find all sorts of things: census information, your state’s legal code, medical reference texts, encyclopedias on everything from rock ‘n’ roll to poetry, national electric code, zip code directories, and more.

I’ll use my library as an example for what you might find at your local library when searching for information on circuses. When I search just the word ‘circus’ in the main catalog, I find more than 550 books. But I can see from the first few titles that I’m getting quite a few fiction titles. When I restrict the search to reference material, I only get three books. All three are about circus parades and their history. That could be interesting and useful given that they include historical photographs. And there’s a bonus: all three books have circulating copies that you could check out and take home.

Expanding the search to nonfiction titles, there are almost 50 titles (if that gets expanded to the entire county there’s almost 200, but let’s focus on what’s in the building for now), but it’s a mixed bag. There are collections of Family Circus comic strips, biographies of LeBron James, and at least one book on the Civil War. But, the very first result is The Rise of the American Circus, 1716-1899 by S. L. Kotar which sounds like research gold if you need any historical information about circuses. Also on the first page are books about tattooed ladies, circus elephants, and one on sideshow performers. You’re already on your way to having some great stuff for your research by only looking at the books in the library.

Those searches you could do on your own. If you went to a librarian for help, that would be your starting point. Depending on what you needed, the librarian might look into the library’s databases (which you might be able to access from home, just make sure to leave the library with a card in good standing) for newspaper and magazine articles as well as more encyclopedic information that’s been through a vetting process (which means the content has been verified by an expert) so that you can trust what you find. If you were in my library doing research on circuses, I would point out to you that the Circus World Museum is only about a two-hour drive away. If you didn’t want to/weren’t able to make the drive, I would make sure you had the museum’s contact information so that you could get in touch with them with follow-up questions.

You see, librarians are trained to do research. We’re trained to understand how people search. We’re trained to know how search engines work. We’re trained to know where the resources are. We take all of these skills and combine them together into what’s called the reference interview. This is where the librarian does her best to learn exactly what it is you’re looking for. The more detail you can provide, the more specific her answer will be. Obviously if you don’t have a lot of details, your search results will be more generic. Either way, the librarian will work to find you answers that you can use.

When doing research, it should go without saying that the library is your first stop. But that’s no longer the truth. So much basic information that people use everyday is available online which leads people to believing that everything can be found with Google or whatever their favorite search engine is. But take a trip to the library instead. You’ll likely find wifi so Google’s available to you, great reference books, cool databases, a quiet work environment, and really helpful librarians who want to teach you how to use these resources.

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  • Erika Holt

    I just started working at my local public library (at the reference desk) and am so excited about the research possibilities! Thanks for a great post, John.

  • Librarians are a writer’s friend!

    It doesn’t surprise me that librarians and writers have an amazing amount of overlap, either…

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  • In my experience library research results have been more accurate than information I find on the Web. Worst offenders are incorrect quote attributions.

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  • Lucifer

    If you’re an avid reader, you’ve probably amassed an eclectic library of your own. My research ‘trick’ is to look through any books I think might have material that could be useful. Not necessarily directly pertinent; in fact it’s often more inspiring if not. For example, one of my archaeological journals has just given me some great ideas for a funeral rites scene. These unexpected prizes are really satisfying and can be discovered in the comfort of your armchair (without bowing down to Google!).