Research for writers, #3: LCSH and friends

Sometimes, the things you need to research are the sort where you need more than Wikipedia. You need not just facts, but context or analysis: not the bare bones of what happened in Valley Forge, but a sense of what it was like to live through that winter. Not a three-paragraph account of what started the English Civil War, but a historian’s evaluation of the way different conflicts and tensions collided to push things to that brink.

You need a whole book.

How do you find one?

I said last time that you can sometimes get traction on a topic by looking at the list of sources for a relevant Wikipedia article. But maybe there’s nothing useful there, or you need more than just a single book. How do you dig deeper?

Hopefully you have access to a good library; your local public may suffice, but if you really want the good stuff, look to an area college or university. Some of them will let you have access for free, but others charge fees, which vary widely depending on the school. If you’re embarking on a big project, though — like a historical novel — it’s worth it.

Libraries come with librarians, who can be very helpful. I don’t claim to know all of their tricks: after all, it’s their job to know how to find the info you need. But I can pass along a few.

Do you know your way around the Dewey decimal system? It won’t help you much in an academic library. They’re more likely to be organized by the Library of Congress system. Finding one book on your topic, though, will still lead you to the relevant shelves, where you can scan for other useful-looking titles, checking out indices and tables of contents to get a sense of whether its focus is what you need.

If you don’t have one book, though, you still have options, if you’re familiar with Library of Congress subject headings. I learned about these when I worked as an indexer for Anthropological Literature, typing in the bibliographic data for journal articles, and tagging them with subject headings. They aren’t always intuitive; if you search AL for the keyword “Native Americans,” you won’t find much. That’s because the LCSH are old enough that they assign “Indians” for the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, and “East Indians” for those of India. Knowing those quirks makes LCSH searches a lot more effective. But even if you don’t know them well, you can still do the digital equivalent of scanning the shelf: whatever catalogue you’re using almost certainly will code the subject headings as links. Find the term you want, click on it, and now you’re looking at a list of all books with that tag or set of tags — some of which may be shelved in other parts of the library, not where you would have thought to look.

Sometimes the most useful details turn up in journal articles instead of books. The difficulty with them is that they’re indexed in a lot of different databases, not the library’s main catalogue, and tend to be divided up by subject. Anthropology journals, for example, will be found in AL (the one I mentioned above) or the Anthropological Index Online, but those two won’t do you much good if you need to read up on the economic history of the Roman empire. Some of these charge for access, unfortunately — and they charge a lot. Universities pay those fees, and if you have borrowing privileges with one, you may or may not also have a login that permits you to get at the databases. Alternatively, a public library may offer the same option. (That’s how I get at the Oxford English Dictionary and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography these days: through a public library, though I also pay to borrow books from a university.)

Finally, there’s always the bibliography trick, not just with Wikipedia articles, but with any source you pick up. It only works going backward, so to speak: it will only lead you to stuff that was published earlier, not later, and depending on what you’re researching, you may really want more recent work. But still, this is how I turned up what appears to be the one decent book ever written on the history of the cockney dialect. Check the footnotes, check the bibliography, and see what you find.

Any other library research tricks you guys can suggest? I never took a single library science course; all of this is just acquired through experience. I’d love any new tips.

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  1. 1. Alea

    I’m a librarian currently working on a doctorate in history, and here are a few additional tips.

    #1 tip: When searching the catalog, check out the subject headings for any good books you find. Most books cataloged in the digital age have multiple subject headings. Investigating these may lead you to additional places on the shelf to browse. After all, a book can have multiple subject headings related to different topics (which are often shelved in different places)–but it can only be shelved in one place in the library.
    This is something you can do whether or not you have access to the library in question. Pick a good research library (perhaps at an institution which has a degree program in the area you’re interested in?) and search their catalog for books to request through ILL.
    This is probably the first thing I do when I’m looking for books.

    * the same technique applies when searching indexed databases. Although subject headings or index terms may not be hyperlinks, look at the terms indexers are using to describe any relevant materials. Try searching for those terms to see what comes up. And think about the terms that come up, because they’ll give you an idea of how the indexers and/or the author (because increasingly these days the authors provide keywords for their article) thinks about the subject . . . and what kinds of words they’re thinking in.*

    * if you have access to a university library (whether or not you can check out books) consider checking to see if there’s an Oxford or Blackwell companion to the general subject you’re interested in. At least in the field of history, these are big volumes which contain chapters offering breakdowns of a big topic with extensive bibliographies–and commentary about various books’ plusses & minuses. — sometimes the tables of contents for these are available on the internet, in which case you can identify a chapter of interest & order it through interlibrary loan (ILL).

    * Investigate the research pages university librarians put together for courses & subjects — they’ll often include a short list of major reference works . . . and sometimes a list of subject headings to search the catalog & locate good books on topic. Or look for professors who’ve taught classes on the topic & posted their syllabi online–especially grad classes. Some professors add “suggested readings” to already long syllabi!

    Good researching!

  2. 2. green_knight

    Finding libraries that stock the books you want can be a problem, but I wholeheartedly reccommend as an online catalogue. It’s the catalogue of the Bodleian library in Oxford: this is a copyright library, which means it gets every new book published in the UK as well as a lot of others. That’s a whole lot of books. And it’s a good _catalogue_ which means that every book comes with a number of categories you might not have considered, and you can see what other books are under that keyword, and you should, eventually, find a book that’s available to you.

    Also, scour second-hand bookshops. The books might not represent the newest research, but they’ll give you an idea what you’re looking for – which keywords, which authors (you can put a book into and see who cites it, so you can follow older research into the present).

    I’d issue one caveat about older research, though: it’s very often a history of important men, which means that the role of women gets downplayed, and the role of societal changes likewise, and minorities are ignored altogether: this is like saying that Steve Jobs revolutionalised computing single-handedly: he was charismatic enough that he’ll stick in people’s minds, but he didn’t do it on his own.

  3. 3. Siobhan

    I often find that commercial search engines (e.g. Amazon) are much better at pulling up titles of the kind of books I want; then I feed those titles into a university search engine.

  4. 4. Kathryn Scannell

    Research is a topic near and dear to my heart, although I’m not a librarian either. On-line library catalogs are a great help, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to on-line resources. These days many (most?) university libraries subscribe to a service from Ebsco publishing which has scanned copies of immense numbers of recent scholarly papers, and a nice web interface to search for them. Some are available in full text, and others are only abstracts, and a pointer to where you can buy them.

    There’s also Google books, Project Gutenberg, and the Internet Archive as sources for older books. There have been major initiatives in recent years to scan older, out of copyright books from major university libraries and make them available on the internet. You can find everything from dime novels to scans of historical documents – the mix is eclectic, often at the whim of volunteers who are putting in the time scanning and proofreading the results. These are all free. And take up no space on your already bulging bookshelves. That’s glorious.

    A good search engine like Google should yield pointers to other resources as well – most scholarly journals are available on-line these days, although the current issues are not free. Back issues are frequently becoming free though.

    With the internet, you do have to look carefully at the resources you find, and decide how reliable they are. That’s true for libraries as well, as older sources in many disciplines can be badly dated.

  5. 5. green_knight

    Kathryn, on the whole I don’t find Wikipedia any worse than the (mostly outdated) books on my shelves. Neither are ‘historical research’ as such; but I’m not trying to uncover history, I’m trying to find inspiration for second world fantasy; and for that purpose – or to simply get an idea of the issues and what to research – both work perfectly well.

  6. 6. Elias McClellan

    This is a treasure of information. Thank you for the topic/thread, Ms. Brennan. Thanks to everyone else for your experiences, tips, and tools. Skill sharing like this is why I haunt this site. That and it beats actually working on a Monday.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    My thanks to everybody who’s chipped in with suggestions. (Siobhan, I totally forgot to mention that one: I have been known to build a wishlist on Amazon expressly so their recommendation engine will start pointing me at other books on the topic.)

  8. 8. Phiala

    I’m very behind, but this is useful enough that I’m going to share anyway.

    Google books is a fantastic resource for finding books that you need, because they index a whole lot of books, even though they don’t show full-text for most of them. (This is different from using them to find out-of-copyright full books on particular subjects.)

    If you have a specific search phrase, it’s a fast way to get a list of books that talk about that, and often you get to read the snippet of text surrounding your phrase so you can decide if that book will be useful enough to track down.

    I now start my research with Google books, then move on to the library. I’ve found a lot of specific bits of information that I never would have encountered otherwise unless I went through the stacks book by book.

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



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