Research is a big part of my writing work day. In fact, I read far more words than I write in my constant search for a topic, a story,* and/or a telling detail. I have special glasses for the hours I spend on the computer, and eye drops that I generally forget to use. (Excuse me, while I pause and lubricate.)
More importantly, I have library cards for five local library systems, am an active user of Interlibrary Loan, and frequently max out my borrowing privileges. Because contrary to popular opinion, you really can’t find everything on the internet.** Sometimes you need to browse the shelves, skim an index, read a primary source or an authoritative history, succumb to the allure of the archives, or ask a reference librarian for help. Some of the most satisfying moments of my career have occurred in libraries.***
Bruce Joshua Miller, editor of Curiosity's Cats: Writers on Research, makes no secret of his discomfort with researchers’ increasing dependence on digitized sources. The 13 essays he commissioned for the collection share a common mandate: tell a story about a research project that required techniques beyond computer searches. The resulting collection could have been an extended Luddite shudder against technology or a simple exercise in nostalgia. It is neither, though several of the essays include a variation on “I’m not a Luddite, but…” and the final essay (Marilyn Stasio’s “Your Research–or Your Life!”) uses nostalgia to pointed effect. Instead, each piece explores the complicated and often personal relationship between writers and their research.
The essays, written by novelists, historians, journalists and a filmmaker, vary widely in topic, tone and method. Some give detailed accounts of methodology, like historian of science Alberto Martínez who gives a step-by-step account of the convoluted and creative process tracking down a single elusive fact: the date that Albert Einstein had the intuitive flash that led to the theory of relativity. Others, like essayist Ned Stuckey-French, who describes research as a way of life for his entire family, are more impressionistic. Despite the book’s focus on non-digital discoveries, several also celebrate new opportunities of on-line digging.
Whether funny or poignant, describing the insights that come from getting lost in a strange city or the development of a research path over the course of a career, the essays in Curiosity’s Cats celebrate the joy of research on-line and off.
* Topic and story are not the same. This is the first lesson any writer must learn if she wants to survive.
**Though you can find more than you may realize if you know how to look. I take a lot of pride in my on-learn search skills.
***Not to mention some of the most embarrassing. If you meet me in person ask me about the “sexist man alive” incident at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. Let’s just say librarians don’t always whisper.
Most of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.
I’ve often wished for a book discussing this subject. My research mechanics have always been scattered, at best. Peeking into others modus operandi will help sharpen my skills.
I also recommend How to Find Out Anything by Don MacLeod for nuts and bolts research tips.