While working on my latest book, I spent many hours wandering around the Library of Congress. Well, not literally, but I did spend a lot of time here.
Maybe I’m showing my age with that old Yellow Pages slogan “Let your fingers do the walking,” but the concept is the same. Nothing beats in-person research, but it may not be possible, depending on your work or family responsibilities, financial situation, or another reason.
Research is important, and it’s easy to do it from your home, with the help of the Internet. Whether you are writing nonfiction or fiction, you need to do your research for a thorough knowledge of your subject matter, to get the details right, or even for inspiration.
Who can look at this photograph taken by Dorothea Lange and not be moved?
Digital archives lets you travel back in time
Digital archives take you to places you’ve never been.
Sometimes digital archives collect the photos and documents you need and put them into a special collection. Sometimes, they assemble primary sources into lesson plans for teachers.
As more and more states, communities, and organizations digitize their collections, it is becoming easier and easier to lose yourself in them. Luckily, many are searchable, and handwritten documents are being transcribed by volunteers so they will be more easily searched.
I urge you to check out the archives associated with the place or time you are studying, teaching, or writing about. Some of my favorite archives (aside from the Library of Congress) include The Smithsonian Institution and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which collected information on
outside agitators activists in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement.
Other sources I like to use for research include Open Culture, a collection of public domain books, movies, classes, and more; Project Gutenberg, a collection of public domain ebooks that are searchable (useful when you need to find a particular passage from Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Doctor Dolittle or Alice in Wonderland); and of course Google Maps, whose street view feature lets you walk through any town in the world. For example, here’s an image of the apartment building where my husband and I lived in France. It’s not exactly like visiting there in person, but it’s a lot cheaper.
Then there are the archives that are a little more esoteric.
Historic children’s literature
Mormon missionary diaries
Postcards from North Carolina
All things medical
Radio Shack catalogs going back to 1939
Historic European newspapers
This site describes some fascinating digital library collections.
To get started, here is a listing of hundreds of digital archives, organized by state, as well as directories to help you
get lost in find even more.
What are your favorite digital sources and how do you use them? Share in the comments.
Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the award-winning middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor of Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist, a biography for young (and not so young) readers (Quaker Press 2014).