This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Monday, July 07, 2008

Research Writing Tips Using the Library

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

Over the last decade research has evolved into relative convenience with the stroke of a few keys and exploded into immediate answers that would have taken days and months from the old days. When I refer to the old days, I’m actually referring to the days before the Internet—not so long ago.

Public Library ResearchEven if you still prefer to go to your local library in person and browse through reference books and files, you’ll most likely be using a computer for their catalog system. Public libraries and universities have switched over to computerized databases to catalogue most of their resources.

Now that most files are in a computerized database system, many libraries are choosing to include an online database that allows you to research by subject, title, and author. This saves you the trouble of driving to a library branch looking for information that might not be available at that library branch. However, in order to access some of these database systems, you might need a library card with a number you can punch in, or you may be required to register online. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Without leaving your house, you can request a reference to be shipped to your local, public library by using their online system. Most public libraries are now linked together through the Internet service and have inter-loan systems in place for circumstances such as these.

The inter-loan service is particularly helpful to authors as they need access to geographical details in the various places where their stories may be set. The best information will always be in the local area of the place one is researching. If you don’t live there and can’t visit in person, this is the best way to locate those rare, but specific facts. While there are plenty of Internet sites that give some great information, sometimes those sites only give brief summaries and we authors need details.

University Library Research
Don’t forget the university and college library systems. You don’t necessarily need to be a student, professor, or faculty member of the university in order to access their library. Depending on the university’s area of concentration, some college libraries specialize in specific medical research, scientific studies, archaeology, law, concentrated histories, etc. Their professors and graduate programs are always conducting new research and they are on the cutting edge of new discoveries.

Universities and colleges provide the experts. Make a few phone calls or try and email one of the directors or professors who have a background in the area you are researching. You could also try and contact the author of a study you might find interesting. Many of them don’t mind being interviewed and have a passion for their subject. They would rather take the time out of their busy schedule to educate you on the topic so you don’t misrepresent facts, rather than have more people having the wrong impression. Also, they might appreciate the publicity or the acknowledgement as a reference in your book. They need credentials for their career just as much as we do.
Browse university websites and check out their course descriptions in the areas you might be researching. This will give you a better idea of a person’s expertise on particular subjects.

Local Research for SettingsTypically, authors automatically go to the General Reference section of the library. If you really want the history, culture, climate, dialogue, slang, and intimate knowledge of a specific location, you need to hit their Genealogy Reference section of the library. Sometimes this area is separate from the General Reference section.

You don’t need to research a particular family history, although you can. What you need to do is research the people in the area. Browse through a few family history books, local census records and you’ll see the unique surnames that are present in the area. Some families are notorious for using biblical names in the south—even today. What differences would a new individual from the west have from someone that has grown up and lived in the heart of Alabama their whole life? This kind of research will give you characterization ideas, conflict for your story, and intimate details you won’t find anywhere else.

What strange laws were in existence in the early 20’s, 50’s, and 70’s for the area? Are they still on the books? How would that law influence or change your story? Can it build more conflict for your characters, or create a loop hole to get one of them out of trouble?

Genealogy rooms are full of historical maps showing the progression of the change of time. What might a present day contractor find if he started clearing land for a new building, residential neighborhood, or power plant?

Are there any unclaimed lands in the area that the local government has overlooked confiscating? Any families still own water rights? Browse through old obituaries or newspaper headlines and find a goldmine of unique story ideas. How could these be translated into a present day story? How could a historical event affect your current story?

Read old letters that families may have written to each other. What kind of language did they use? Join a few online groups in the area and listen to the way they talk in their emails. You’ll get a flavor for the dialogue in the area.

In a few weeks I’ll post on Using the Internet for Research.


Wonderful, useful information every writer needs to know. With the world of the Internet, I think we forget about our local library and the resources they provide.

My novels are based on the local history of western Maryland. My library has 'the Maryland Room', a special room where books of historical significance are achieved. Many of the books are rare and old, and it is there that I found the history line for my last two books.

I enjoy your blog, very much, Jennifer. Thanks for stopping by mine. By the way, Part II for the Writer's Portfolio is on Inspire now.

Thanks for stopping by Rita. I enjoy your blog as well. As a marketing & communications professional, your blog about the writer's portfolio is right on.