Monday, 16 August 2010

Research and the library card

Research is vital to writing. Without it, giving an air of verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing argument becomes chuntering on about something you know nothing about.

It's one of writing's great annoyances. You got into this business to write, not to plough through musty books and old newspapers. Unfortunately, the homework isn't going to do itself. Even if you're writing your autobiography, you still need to confirm names dates and places. Otherwise, you'll be in the embarrassing position not even being able to keep your own life straight.

It's also one of writing's great joys. So many people would love to learn about the Civil War or how to pilot a nuclear submarine, but can't justify the time. You as a writer not only can justify looking up the difference between milk and dark chocolate, you have to-assuming that you're writing about chocolate,of course. Otherwise, you're in the same boat as everyone else.

It isn't just in writing itself that research is important. If you're making a career of writing, you need to find out how to sell your work, whom to sell it to, and all the formats and hoop jumping that entails.

The good news is that today is the golden age of research. Never has it been easier to look up facts. Anyone in the heart of London or a mud hut in Zambia has instant access to collections of knowledge that the librarians of Alexandria would have given their wedding tackle to possess--though they probably had already, so the metaphor is moot. Over the last twenty years, the Internet has grown from a novelty where geeks carried on Kirk vs Picard arguments to an incredible repository of information. A generation ago, having access to all the great works of classical literature required sacks of money or a dedicated haunting of secondhand book shops. Today, anyone can reach the works of Shakespeare, the thoughts of Aristotle, the poems of Tennyson,or the essays of Orwell with the click of a mouse.

It isn't just books either. The Internet has literally billions of web pages dedicated to every topic under the sun, huge encyclopaedias, and forums where people can seek answers to all manner of questions. Then there are newspapers from all over the world, digital archives of magazines going back over a century, mp3 libraries going back to Edison's first wax recordings, and video collections almost as old. For the writer, this is an embarrassment of riches.

There isn't enough space here to go into the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet for the researcher and why it must always be approached with caution. We'll save that for reviews of individual sites in later postings. For now, it's best to remind the younger readers that the Internet may be a major source of research, but it isn't the only one. True, more and more information is digitised every day, but 6000 years of civilisation doesn't go on line in a single generation. Even if it does end up on line, there's no guarantee that they will be available without a premium price or that you'll be aware of their existence in the first place.

That's where the public library comes in. I'd spent so much of my adult life working with university and museum collections that I was pleasantly surprised a couple of years ago when I rediscovered the public system. My local one, at least, became a very different animal with the advent of the digital age. The Internet means that library branches are no longer isolated places that have to maintain large collections of aging, redundant works. Their catalogues integrate the entire system where every branch in the county immediately knows where every book in every branch is. That means fewer redundancies. It also means that libraries can now afford to concentrate on maintaining smaller, more current collections to meet the local community's needs. The downside of this is that it's hard to walk into a particular branch and lay your hand on the book you want. The upside is that you can reserve a book from your home computer and have it waiting for you on your next visit. And then there's the wonder of interlibrary loan where you can reserve works from completely different library systems.

Naturally, books aren't the only medium that libraries trade in. There are also CDs, DVDs, audio books, and, increasingly, Internet access. At the moment, I'm sitting in the local library and over a third of the floor space is given over to computer terminals. The first time I saw this, I thought it was the death knell of the books, but then I learned about the digital services that modern libraries afford. By holding a library card, I found that I was authorised to download ebooks, "borrow" video and audio downloads, and I had access to a whole raft of privileged online content that would have cost me a small fortune to subscribe to privately.

Finally, libraries have one more invaluable resource: Librarians. Having someone on hand who knows the ins and outs of the system and has years of experience of people asking silly questions can save hours or even days of hunting for that obscure fact. Make friends with your librarian. It's a great investment.

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