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Research series: library databases and resources

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As I get time, I want to put on my librarian hat and highlight some commonly available resources that are invaluable for writers. You savvy researchers are probably familiar with some or most of them, but I hope I have a trick or two up my sleeve that will surprise you. :) Some of these resources are just neat websites that don't require a login. Others are quite expensive databases you can access for free via your library's website, and may require a library card number for access. Some libraries will let you apply for a card online which lets you access databases but not check out books--this is very helpful if you live far from your library or don't have a chance to make it in.

Are you a non-student who longs for access to your local college or university's library? Ask if you can get a card! Sometimes they are in a cooperative program with the public library system or are otherwise willing to give cards to local non-students.

Don't forget that you have access to a much wider pool of physical resources than you thought you might. Many libraries offer interlibrary loan services so you could request a book from halfway across the country and have it loaned to you for free or cheap. It's also worth asking around to see what kind of special collections or ephemera your local public and academic libraries might have. For example, my public library system has a fantastic Audubon collection and my university library has a collection of postcards and correspondence from Abraham Lincoln. Librarians love to talk about special collections! Go in and ask and you never know what treasure trove you may unearth.

Ask a librarian for help doing advanced searches in the catalog computer. They're usually a little more picky and complex than an online bookstore's search function, but can yield great results if you know what you're doing. They're all different--for example, my catalog system uses a $ as a wildcard and not the standard *. You can do a lot with boolean search functions too, using AND, OR and NOT. (For example, potter NOT harry would eliminate J. K. Rowling's books from your results.) This is so useful if you want to search for books with specific plot elements--you can learn how to limit to just children's book results, or only books published from 2000 on, or whatnot.

When in doubt, ask a librarian! If she is grumpy, ask another librarian! The stereotypical librarian dream job is helping writers do research, so believe me, you will find somebody who adores helping you. Don't give up if the first librarian you talk to is not that person.
#1 - January 28, 2012, 08:40 AM
« Last Edit: February 03, 2012, 09:45 AM by Amanda Coppedge »
Youth Services librarian and YA writer. Wisconsin SW (Madison area) Rep.
@amandacoppedge on Twitter

Of course I'm going to choose my favorite database to talk about first: Gale's Biography In Context.

What it's most useful for: historical fiction research, information on daily life, political atmosphere, occupations, famous people of a particular era or place, etc.

You can access this via your library's database page (may be under "electronic resources," "online research resources," etc.). It may still be listed under its old name "Biography Resource Center."

The most obvious search is by name, to look up specific people. However, you can also do searches by nationality, occupation, birthplace or death place. For example, I was looking for a real-life person that my main character could be a namesake of. I wasn't looking for the actual name, more the life of a person in a particular profession who lived in a particular country during a particular time. I was able to find several people who might fit the bill and get an idea of what kind of blood might run in the veins of this character's family. And, the super creepy part, the most perfect person for this "job" had the same name I had already given my character.

:ghost

Results:
  • encyclopedia entries
  • newspaper and magazine articles
  • videos
  • transcripts and audio of NPR broadcasts

There are entries on modern people too so if you're trying to get the feel for a person's life, or a particular occupation, or what have you, it can be really invaluable. I have gotten in the habit of looking up people I'm interested in because I always learn something new about them. For example, singer Aimee Mann was kidnapped when she was a kid! I have never heard that anywhere else. You are also getting vetted, bona fide information here, not hearsay from a website or speculation repeated as fact.
#2 - January 28, 2012, 10:31 AM
« Last Edit: February 03, 2012, 09:47 AM by Amanda Coppedge »
Youth Services librarian and YA writer. Wisconsin SW (Madison area) Rep.
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Amanda, thanks for the info. I just used Gale's database two weeks ago doing some research for my story.
#3 - January 28, 2012, 02:19 PM

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Amanda,

Thanks so much!!  This thread is a great resource and very helpful.

I love my library's online search capabilities.  I just completed four PB biographies of today's stars, and Gale's Biography in Context was invaluable.

Keep the tips comin'!

Jody
#4 - January 28, 2012, 05:01 PM
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Moonshade and Jody: yay for using library databases!

Another thing that people may not think of is that every time you use a library database, your library knows it's been accessed. When budgets get tight, seldom-used databases are often the first to get axed because they are quite expensive. So every time you use them you are "voting" for your library to keep paying the subscription fee for its users.
#5 - January 29, 2012, 02:54 PM
Youth Services librarian and YA writer. Wisconsin SW (Madison area) Rep.
@amandacoppedge on Twitter


Next database: Gale's Health and Wellness Resource Center

What it's most useful for: Accurate, vetted, current and historic information about health, diseases, drugs and other treatments (including alternative medicine)

You can access this via your library's database page (may be under "electronic resources," "online research resources," etc.).

Health and medicine are frequently an issue in children's and young adult books, and well-researched medical information can make such books really stand out. They can also serve double duty, informing and educating readers about science and medicine. A few great examples that come to mind: RULES by Cynthia Lord (autism), DIRTY LITTLE SECRET by C. J. Omololu (hoarding), THE WAY WE FALL by Megan Crewe (epidemics/viruses) and FEVER 1793 (yellow fever) by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Results:
  • magazine articles
  • academic journal articles
  • health newsletters/pamphlets
  • medical reference books
  • videos
  • a list of trusted websites
#7 - February 03, 2012, 09:42 AM
Youth Services librarian and YA writer. Wisconsin SW (Madison area) Rep.
@amandacoppedge on Twitter

Database: HeritageQuest Online

What it's most useful for: American and international historical research on people, places, events and government

You can access this via your library's database page (may be under "electronic resources," "online research resources," etc.).

If you are familiar with genealogical research, you know how expensive it can be to pay for access to genealogical databases. If your library foots the bill for this great database, be thankful!

This database can help you find information on historically accurate names, occupations, living situations, military and government situations, and more. In conjunction with historical research from period newspapers, magazines and books, this can give you a rounded picture of life for everyday people during an era.

Results:
  • census records 1790-1930
  • books and periodicals on people and places
  • how-to articles for genealogical research (search under PERSI)
  • American Revolutionary War records
  • Freedman's Bank records (bank established for freed slaves, records from 1865-1874)
  • U. S. Congressional Serials set (government history results)
#8 - February 06, 2012, 09:44 AM
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How Cool = Heritage Quest -- I can't wait to see if my library has it!
Thanks Amanda!
#9 - February 07, 2012, 05:02 AM

Database: Bridgeman Art Collection

What it's useful for: Inspiration of all flavors, but especially historical

http://www.bridgemanart.com (you don't need a library account to access this)

Go ahead and type something in the search bar. Try "1890s portrait" or "1940s worker" or "dodo" or the name of a famous person. You will pull results from an amazing, broad, very well-tagged and catalogued collection of art. I use this site for inspiration all the time, to get the feel of an era, to find a piece of art that evokes a setting or emotion I want to capture, or to see portraits of people who inspired a story.

The site is more geared toward the UK but you will find lots of art from other countries as well.

You can download preview images--they have watermarks but since you're just using them for personal reference it doesn't matter.

Results:

Photographs, paintings and photos of sculptures from antiquity through modern times.
#10 - February 08, 2012, 09:00 AM
Youth Services librarian and YA writer. Wisconsin SW (Madison area) Rep.
@amandacoppedge on Twitter

ecb

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Amanda, this is wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing with us.

Another great resource for art is the Web Gallery of Art (http://www.wga.hu/). According to their homepage:
Quote
The Web Gallery of Art is a virtual museum and searchable database of European painting and sculpture of the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassicism, Romanticism periods (1000-1850), currently containing over 28,400 reproductions. Picture commentaries, artist biographies are available. Guided tours, period music, catalogue, free postcard and other services are provided.
 

***
Do you mind me asking a more general question about librarian-aided research? I have to admit that I've tended to shy away from asking librarians for help, because I'm just not sure how to approach them! (Knowing what sort of resources they have available helps a lot.) Do you recommend starting by accessing the databases yourself, or would you dive right in by asking a librarian?

Thanks!
#11 - February 08, 2012, 02:48 PM

Mike Jung

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ecb, I don't know if all librarians are like the ones I work with, but if my experience is any measure, you should absolutely feel free to ask! Our librarians LOVE it when they're asked for help, providing that service is right at the core of their professional identities.
#12 - February 08, 2012, 03:20 PM

Do you mind me asking a more general question about librarian-aided research? I have to admit that I've tended to shy away from asking librarians for help, because I'm just not sure how to approach them! (Knowing what sort of resources they have available helps a lot.) Do you recommend starting by accessing the databases yourself, or would you dive right in by asking a librarian?

Thanks for the other link, ecb--I love using art as inspiration.

And yes, yes, yes, ask librarians! Like I said if you get a grumpy one, find another one to ask. If being a waitress in Hollywood and getting discovered is the stereotypical actor's dream, then helping writers do research is a stereotypical librarian's dream. We spend much of our day doing boring stuff we don't like such as dealing with unruly kids, signing people up to play games or use Facebook on the internet, monitoring study rooms, etc. Answering questions is the best part of the job and answering really interesting/tough questions from a writer is living the dream.
#13 - February 09, 2012, 08:08 AM
Youth Services librarian and YA writer. Wisconsin SW (Madison area) Rep.
@amandacoppedge on Twitter

Can I ask a stupid question? (and first of all - thank you so much for this thread!!)
What if I don't see these on my library's database page? Are these kind of universal (and so I'm just looking in the wrong place?) Or is it possible my library system just doesn't have them yet. I will confess to feeling a little inept when it comes to this kind of research, and I'm always a little embarrassed to ask a librarian - also, I usually have little people with me...

(As an aside, the other day I was checking books out and looked around and my 6 year old was missing... I found her a bit later at the information desk, asking a librarian how to find Skulduggery Pleasant. I told my daughter I could have helped her in a second, but she said, "Mom, this is a librarian. I think she's better at this than you."  :oi and true...)
#14 - February 09, 2012, 08:47 AM
Robin

It's not a stupid question, Robin. :)

It may be that your library doesn't have access to these databases. A subscription for an individual database can cost more than $10,000 for a year so especially for smaller libraries, it can be near-impossible to provide access to these great resources.

But I'll bet you can find them in some other way. Can you get a library card as an alumnus of a college or university, or know someone who can? Can you request a library card from a local university library, or see if there is a public library system nearby that doesn't have a residency restriction for granting cards? Or can you find a nice friend who would let you use their library card number to access databases from their home library system's website?
#15 - February 09, 2012, 10:00 AM
Youth Services librarian and YA writer. Wisconsin SW (Madison area) Rep.
@amandacoppedge on Twitter

Thanks, Amanda! I hadn't thought about the university library - my husband's an alum at the UofW so I should go see what I can work out there. ;) They have a beautiful library on campus, but it hadn't occurred to me to look at their digital resources.

Thanks!
#16 - February 09, 2012, 10:55 AM
Robin

I hope it works, Robin!
#17 - February 09, 2012, 11:54 AM
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Hi Amanda and everyone,

I've got a question about researching people.  What sources can you consult when your subject has had very little written about them (this person has only been well-known for about three years)?  I'm finding it hard to dig up info on this person's life before high school.  If it makes any difference, this person is originally from a different country.

Thanks for your thoughts!

Jody
#18 - February 27, 2012, 02:21 PM
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Jody, have you tried googling in the person's native language (using google translator or a multilingual friend)?  Also, try googling his/her acquaintances, as well.  Perhaps some of them would be willing to answer your questions, if you found them.  Good luck!

Aloha,
Tori :)
#19 - February 28, 2012, 04:26 PM
« Last Edit: February 28, 2012, 05:31 PM by Tori »
SPAGHETTI SMILES, Pelican Pub Fall 2014
ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN, Marimba Books 2011
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Wow!  Amanda, I can't thank you enough!  I've just read this thread here at the school where I work and found out we have HeritageQuest.  Five minutes later I was looking at my grandparents and great-grandparents' listings on the census.  Now I can do some research for free--how neat is that?
#20 - February 28, 2012, 04:47 PM

I just want to say that because of my idle clicking, I got all the way to an ancestor born in 1340 in England before the line petered out.  And that was only one side of the family.  I've never had so much fun--thanks, Amanda!
#21 - February 28, 2012, 07:22 PM

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Thank you!  Very valuable info...can hardly wait to access.
#22 - February 29, 2012, 03:14 AM

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Wow! I don't know how I missed this thread before, but thank you so much, Amanda. This is great.  :) :)
#23 - March 05, 2012, 01:56 PM

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This is very helpful. Thank you!
#24 - March 08, 2012, 11:06 AM
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