Research for Writers, #3: LCSH and Friends

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


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.