How Library School Has Taught Me To Research Better

Last semester, I was in a required class called Information Sources and Services, which was intended to introduce us library school newbies into the theory, framework, and principles of reference services in a library setting. There are many different types of jobs in libraries and information science, but obvi, reference services are a big part of the patron-facing part.

Anyway, I went into this class figuring I already knew a few things about research. That is, in addition to the occasional research I do at my job in the archives or the resources I know to give to patrons who come to use the archives, I’ve also done a shit ton of random research dives for past writing projects.

And then I started library school and realized, “Nope. What I thought was *research* was not research.” What I was doing was Googling an assortment of plain search terms, through regular Google and GoogleBooks, and sifting through those results—which is fine, but doesn’t pass the library standard.

1. Know your gaps

I know too much about nineteenth-century Britain for an American-born person who has never traveled to the United Kingdom. First, there’s the Regency period, which I learned about through Jane Austen novels and Regency romances, some history books, and a ton of historical romance author websites and blogs. I know a tiny bit less about the Victorian era, but enough that I have a grasp of the basic Big Events and Big Personalities. More specific things would have to be researched, if necessary. I’m less inclined to trust someone’s interpretation of the Chartist movement online rather than, say, trustworthy sources on the Chartists–like a book, article, or podcast by a prominent professor or historian of Victoriana, for instance.

I know a fair amount about the Romanovs. But as the FrankenIdea partially deals with the Romanovs, I saw a couple of places where my knowledge had gaps–and in particular, I wanted a more personal take on the family, the Russian Revolution and its chaos, and more on those bits in the Romanov story which provoke that itchy “what if?” feeling in a writer–What if they escaped Russia here? What if they could only get the children out?

Some searching led me to a memoir written by Julia Cantacuzene, who was Ulysses Grant’s granddaughter and had married a Russian prince, Mikhail Cantacuzene. Princess Cantacuzene lived among the upper classes of Russia in the same period as Nicholas II and Alexandra. She’d met them, interacted with them, and she described aspects of World War One and the start of the Revolution in ways a historian wouldn’t cover, I think—like how difficult it was to get passports for her three kids to leave Russia on the TransSiberian Railroad to Vladivostok so they could travel to America, because she feared for their safety in the unrest. She described the chaos in Kiev, where she stayed for a time, and the Crimea and all of it as an eyewitness or at least an informed person living through those times.

I turned to another memoir by Pierre Gilliard, French tutor to the Romanov children, for a more close-up view of the Romanovs–their dynamics, what the children were like. He wrote about Alexei’s hemophilia a bit, as well as how not often Alexei saw Rasputin. Crucially, because Gilliard followed the family into Siberian exile, he wrote about that period of time as well–and lived to write the tale.

2. Have an organized research method

I like going down rabbit holes, especially on Wikipedia where I’ve been known to keep clicking links forever and forever and forever. But in a library setting, generally a patron will come to the reference desk having already done a Google or having read the Wikipedia article on whatever they might need. What else can you give them to further their research needs?

Well, when conducting a search through the catalog or the databases, it’s important to be orgnaized. You yourself may be a rabbit hole person, but you have to be able to explain the search to said patron.

  • Know and identify the best places to look for information for that field or topic
  • Explain what you’re doing to the patron so they can subsequently search themselves
  • Try to reframe the patron’s question from their words into subject terms (controlled vocabulary) a database will employ
Librarians don’t know everything. They just know where and how to look for things really, really well.

3. Examine the source

Is the source reliable? Is there an author listed? Who is this author? What is the scope of the information? What is the author’s bias? Is it a primary, secondary, encyclopedic or other kind of source? Are there references to the author’s research listed?

These questions aren’t as important when researching a novel compared to an academic term paper. I’m not going to inflict torture on myself when writing “for fun” by reading a 50-page-long periodical article unless it very specifically has to do with something I actually need to know for my story. But I may have to read that same long, dry article for a term paper (and trust me, I will).

4. Whittle your research down 

Goes along with knowing your research gaps and not to be all over the place when researching a topic. Be organized, do a preliminary search to see what you can find, then pinpoint exactly what you need to know to move your characters and plot along. That’s it.

When I first started writing historical fiction, I….went overboard on the research. To be fair, I didn’t know a ton about the late Georgian era, so I “researched.” I was all over the place. I read a book about  seventeeth and eighteenth century British shipping for one paragraph about sugar prices in the Caribbean, for God’s sake.

Did I actually need to know that information to move characters and plot along? No.

Read enough general things to get a working knowledge of an era, concept, event, or person, then narrow that down. What about the Romanovs do I exactly need to know? What about Norwich’s present-day archives do I need to know for this story? (I just needed to know which ones in Norwich, UK, would hold collections about prominent families. Looked at two archives’ websites–pretty obviously, the county records office and the biggest university library–figured out the answer, presto bingo, my character Mina has a workplace). What is it about real Indian princely families I need to know in order to create a fictional one?

Specificity is often easier to search for than a broad general question.

5. Keep track of your research

I’ve always been pretty good when researching historical fiction things of keeping a folder of bookmarked links to refer back to. For one story, I had a bibliography document. Obviously, for academic work–or even just work-work–citing sources is important.

Keeping track of where you got information in order to refer back to it is one reason to do so. Another reason to keep track? Giving an editor or fact checker your sources may be an important thing to do at some point. Knowing what source gave you what fact will be helpful.

4 thoughts on “How Library School Has Taught Me To Research Better

  1. That's a lot of work. Lol! It's giving me vibes from my English major days. I definitely don't do that level of research for stories. Really though, keeping track of where I find things would be helpful, because I can't tell you how many times I've given up on a factoid because I can't remember where I found it and I don't feel like searching for it again. I did save a timetable that tells me what time the sun rises and sets in whatever location I want. I don't often need it, but it saves me time when I do!


  2. Pfff…I don't have to do nearly this amount of research (so far) for my writing. But it does remind me of those horrible research papers at the end of college. Ugh. But these points are good, and I need some reminders and eye-openers. Thank you and enjoy!


  3. It's geared more for library research, but I think it's applicable to any kind of research, including for fiction. But it's helping narrow down what I actually need to know for the story and what I've found for more general things about the period I'm writing in or whatever.


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