Category Archives: Research

Free access to Oxford online resources the week of April 13th

To celebrate National Library Week, Oxford University Press is providing free access to their online resources from April 13th through 19th:

Username: libraryweek
Password: libraryweek

Go here to see the full list (with links) of online resources you can access. A few highlights:

  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • Oxford Bibliographies Online
  • Oxford Reference
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online
  • American National Biography Online
  • Grove Art Online
  • Grove Music Online
  • Berg Fashion Library
  • Oxford African American Studies Online
  • Electronic Enlightenment

 

I’ll be teaching a research workshop for Clarion West in May

I’ll be teaching a one-day Clarion West workshop with Louise Marley on Sunday, May 4th from 10am to 4pm in Seattle’s University District:

Fiction R&D: From Research to Ideas to Stories
Research is a creative process that can help writers with inspiration, storytelling, and worldbuilding. Lisa Gold will share practical advice on doing research and finding useful and unusual sources, and she’ll provide an annotated list of resources. Louise Marley will explore generating, refining, and developing ideas into stories. They’ll use a combination of lecture, discussion, brainstorming, and writing exercises.

Check out these other Clarion West one-day workshops:

  • Rachel Swirsky, Telling Old Stories in New Ways, April 6
  • Nicola Griffith, The Magic of Immersive Fiction, April 13

For more information or to register: http://www.clarionwest.org/workshops/oneday/fiction-rd-from-research-to-ideas-to-stories/

My posts on Thomas Paine on the Bauman Rare Books blog

I’ve started a new series of posts on Thomas Paine on the Bauman Rare Books blog. You can read my earlier Forgotten Founders posts on George Mason (Parts 1 and 2) and John Dickinson (Parts 1, 2, and 3) here.

I’ll add links as each post goes live:

Paine-220x300“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
–Thomas Paine, Common Sense

My posts on Forgotten Founders on the Bauman Rare Books blog

I’ve started a new series of Americana posts on the writings of the “Forgotten Founders” for the Bauman Rare Books blog. My first two posts are on George Mason of Virginia, who Jefferson called “the wisest man of his generation.” Mason was the principle author of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution, which had an extraordinary influence on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

I’ll add links as each post goes live:

My posts on American Ephemera on the Bauman Rare Books blog

I wrote a series of posts on late 18th-century American ephemera– pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers of the American Revolution– for the new Bauman Rare Books blog.

My first post, American Ephemera: History as it Happened, is now up. Here’s a preview:

The United States of America was the first nation created though revolutionary acts of writing. Many of our most significant and influential founding works—Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers—were first printed not in book form, but as ephemera, printed material not meant to be preserved.

There are many types of ephemera, but in this series I’ll be discussing late 18th-century American pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers. They were usually printed for a particular time-sensitive purpose and then discarded, so relatively little from this period has survived.

Ephemera captured history as it happened and quickly spread it on both sides of the Atlantic—breaking news, public reaction to current events, government declarations and documents, speeches, letters, sermons, essays, and furious debates about the political, economic, and philosophical issues of the day. These invaluable primary sources are like time travel, allowing us to witness key events, gain insight into everyday life, and understand how Americans evolved from loyalty to rebellion to self-government….

The other posts in the series will appear every other week. I’ll add links to the titles below as they are posted on the BRB blog.

If you’re interested in rare books, you should check out the rest of the blog, which includes posts on Rare Books 101, Stories About Books, Modern American Literature, Legends of Photography, The Best Illustrated Books You’ve Never Heard Of, and Sex, Drugs & Books.

Let’s talk about search

So my last post, “Yet another study shows that ‘digital natives’ suck at searching,” seems to have struck a nerve– it’s received over 5000 hits (thanks to links from BoingBoing and Fark, as well as Twitter and Facebook), and I’ve been reading  the wide range of comments that have sprung up in various places (including my blog, BoingBoing, and the original article at Inside Higher Ed).

I think what many people (especially students) don’t understand is that search is both a tool and a process, requiring different skills, knowledge, and experience. You can learn just enough to get by or really master it with a little curiosity, persistence, time, and practice. There are many ways to do this, and you don’t need a formal class– you can teach yourself (as I did).  There are lots of online resources to help you, including tutorials and how-to guides on university and library websites and specific search engine help pages. (And don’t forget about librarians, a seriously underused resource.) There are links to some resources in my posts and my blogroll and I’ll add more soon.

I do believe it’s important for students to be taught (and regularly practice)– at school, in libraries, and at home– the essentials of digital and information literacy and critical thinking, starting at a young age  and continuing throughout their education. These are important life skills which are being sadly neglected.

Yes, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that most students are lazy and want to get quick and “good enough” results. But the problem is that they don’t know what they don’t know. (As the ERIAL researchers noted, “students were just as unaware of the extent of their own information illiteracy as everyone else.”) They have no idea that there’s a world of information out there that you can’t find through a Google search. Most of it has never been digitized and probably never will be (for lack of funding and copyright concerns, among other reasons). Some has been digitized but is locked in proprietary databases and the “invisible web.” Most books and articles published in the US after 1922 are still under copyright, so even if they’ve been digitized chances are they aren’t free (unless you borrow them from a library). Even if information has been indexed in Google, you may never find it if you don’t know how to properly search for it.

Google could certainly improve the situation, but it is a company of engineers trying to make search as easy and simple as possible for the vast majority of users, giving them a single “magic box” into which they can type anything and get results, even if they’ve spelled the keywords wrong or don’t really know what they are looking for. Some of the “improvements” they’ve made over time have made it frustrating for advanced users like me, such as ignoring the terms I’ve actually typed and substituting what they assume I’m looking for, or filtering my results based on my past search history. And if you want more advanced search options, Google doesn’t make it easy to find or learn about them, and their help articles often aren’t helpful at all. Search is not just an engineering problem to be solved– it is both an art and a science, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But no matter how good or flawed a tool like Google search is, anyone can learn how to use it well and get far better results.

A number of people have asked for some advice and tips on search, so here you go.

General advice:

  • When using any search engine, database, or website with search functions, take a few moments to read the instructions or help pages to figure out how to use the site to its full advantage.
  • Search engines are constantly evolving, so you should periodically review the instructions to see if you need to make changes in the way you search.
  • Every search engine is different, so what works for one won’t necessarily work for all, and each may produce different results using the same search terms.
  • If there is an “advanced search” option, you should always use it, as it will give you much more control over your searching and the results.
  • Refine your search. Experiment with different keywords and combinations of keywords. Look for clues to other possible keywords, such as related terms, alternate names, and subject-specific terminology. If you don’t get the results you are looking for, keep trying different things.
  • Remember to look beyond just the first few search results.

Some Google-specific tips:

  • Google’s search tips and help articles can be hard to find, but they do have useful information. Here are direct links:
  • Use Google’s advanced search function, which allows you to limit your search  in many different ways and combinations (all these words, this exact wording or phrase, one or more of these words, don’t show pages that have any of these unwanted words, language, file type, search within a site or domain, etc.). There is no longer a link to it on the main search page– it’s now hidden behind the gear icon (search settings) in the upper right corner. Here’s the direct link:  http://www.google.com/advanced_search?hl=en
  • If you’d rather use Google’s main search box instead of the advanced search, the help articles I linked to above have command shortcuts you can use, such as placing quotation marks around exact phrases. Note that Google no longer uses all Boolean operators. (You don’t need AND as it is the default in all searches. You can still use OR. Don’t use NOT, instead place a minus sign (-) directly before any words or terms you want to exclude.)
  • Google has many specialized search functions for images, news, blogs, scholarly papers, books, patents, etc.  Look in the upper left-hand corner, click “more,” then click “even more” for a full list. Here’s the direct link to the list:  http://www.google.com/intl/en/about/products/index.html
  • All the words you put in the query will be used and the order you put them in matters.
  • Search is case insensitive, punctuation is usually ignored, and common words (the, a) are usually ignored.
  • Google automatically searches for common variations of a keyword.

A final note: Improving your search skills is important, but it’s even more important that you think critically and evaluate your search results and sources.  (See some of my previous posts for more about this.)

Yet another study shows that “digital natives” suck at searching

I’ve blogged before about studies showing that so-called “digital natives” lack basic information literacy skills and have great difficulty doing academic research and finding and evaluating sources.  (My two posts on Project Information Literacy studies are here and here.)

This Inside Higher Ed article reported today on the results of new studies by the ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) Project. Here’s an excerpt, but you should read the whole thing:

“The majority of students — of all levels — exhibited significant difficulties that ranged across nearly every aspect of the search process,” according to researchers there. They tended to overuse Google and misuse scholarly databases. They preferred simple database searches to other methods of discovery, but generally exhibited “a lack of understanding of search logic” that often foiled their attempts to find good sources….

The most alarming finding in the ERIAL studies was perhaps the most predictable: when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy….

The prevalence of Google in student research is well-documented, but the Illinois researchers found something they did not expect: students were not very good at using Google. They were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results. Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources. (For instance, limiting a search to news articles, or querying specific databases such as Google Book Search or Google Scholar.)

Duke and Asher said they were surprised by “the extent to which students appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school.” Even students who were high achievers in high school suffered from these deficiencies…

In other words: Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar.

“I think it really exploded this myth of the ‘digital native,’ ” Asher said. “Just because you’ve grown up searching things in Google doesn’t mean you know how to use Google as a good research tool.”

Even when students turned to more scholarly resources, that did not necessarily solve the problem. Many seemed confused about where in the constellation of library databases they should turn to locate sources for their particular research topic: Half wound up using databases a librarian “would most likely never recommend for their topic.”…

Years of conditioning on Google had not endowed the Illinois Wesleyan students with any searching savvy to speak of, but rather had instilled them with a stunted understanding of how to finely tune a search in order to home in on usable sources, concluded the ERIAL researchers.

Regardless of the advanced-search capabilities of the database they were querying, “Students generally treated all search boxes as the equivalent of a Google search box, and searched ‘Google-style,’ using the ‘any word anywhere’ keyword as a default,” they wrote. Out of the 30 students Duke and Asher observed doing research, 27 failed to narrow their search criteria at all when doing so would have turned up more helpful returns.

Unsurprisingly, students using this method got either too many search results or too few. Frequently, students would be so discouraged they would change their research topic to something more amenable to a simple search….

Duke and Asher noted: “Students showed an almost complete lack of interest in seeking assistance from librarians during the search process.” Of all the students they observed — many of whom struggled to find good sources, to the point of despair — not one asked a librarian for help.

In a separate study of students…, other ERIAL researchers deduced several possible reasons for this. The most basic was that students were just as unaware of the extent of their own information illiteracy as everyone else.

How are students supposed to acquire these important digital and information literacy skills if they aren’t being taught in schools, many parents and teachers lack these skills themselves, and the librarians who have the skills are ignored or fired as libraries close in record numbers?

57 years of author interviews from The Paris Review are now online

If you liked the BBC archive of interviews with British novelists that I blogged about a couple of months ago, you’ll love this.

The New York Times reported that Lorin Stein, the new editor of The Paris Review, has posted all of the magazine’s author interviews from 1953 to 2010 on the website, where they can be read for free.

The archive contains hundreds of interviews with a remarkable assortment of authors– writers of fiction and nonfiction, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters– and you can browse by name or by decade. Here are just some of the notable authors I spotted while browsing:  Edward Albee, Woody Allen, Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis, A.R. Ammons, Maya Angelou, John Ashbery, Margaret Atwood, W.H. Auden, James Baldwin, J.G. Ballard, Saul Bellow, Harold Bloom, Ray Bradbury, Anthony Burgess, William S. Burroughs, James M. Cain, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Isak Dineson, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, James Ellroy, William Faulkner, Shelby Foote, E.M. Forster, John Fowles, Robert Frost, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Joseph Heller, Lillian Hellman, Ernest Hemingway, Ted Hughes, Aldous Huxley, John Irving, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Stephen King, Milan Kundera, John le Carre, Doris Lessing, Jonathan Letham, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, David Mamet, Ian McEwan, Henry Miller, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, Grace Paley, Dorothy Parker, Boris Pasternak, Harold Pinter, Ezra Pound, Richard Powers, Richard Price, Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Budd Schulberg, Anne Sexton, Neil Simon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen Sondheim, John Steinbeck, Tom Stoppard, William Styron, Hunter S. Thompson, James Thurber, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Evelyn Waugh, Eudora Welty, Rebecca West, E.B. White, Elie Wiesel, Billy Wilder, Thornton Wilder, William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, Jeanette Winterson, Tom Wolfe, and P.G. Wodehouse.

Enjoy!

Scrivener software news

Over the years I’ve heard writers rave about Scrivener, software that combines a word processor with project management tools to help organize research and ideas and structure long works with outlines and storyboards.

Scrivener was created by Literature & Latte and has long been available only for Mac. The company recently made two announcements: the new and improved Scrivener 2.0 for Mac will be released on November 1st (just in time for National Novel Writing Month); and Scrivener for Windows is being developed for release in early 2011. Today they released a free public beta version of Scrivener for Windows on the website. (I just downloaded the Windows beta and am looking forward to playing with it.)

For reader recommendations of other software and tools to help organize your research, see the comments in my August 2008 post, “A question for my readers about software.” If you have recommendations or opinions you’d like to share, please do so in the comments to this post.

The CRAP test for evaluating sources

I frequently blog about evaluating sources– it was the subject of my very first post–so it should come as no surprise that I liked “Crap Detection, A 21st Century Literacy” from the Libraries and Transliteracy blog, which I found through the Librarian in Black.

I wanted to point out two great items featured in the post: Howard Rheingold’s “Crap Detection 101,” and the librarian-created CRAP test for evaluating sources based on “Currency, Reliability, Authority and Purpose/Point of View”:

Currency

  • How recent is the information?
  • How recently has the website been updated?
  • Is it current enough for your topic?

Reliability

  • What kind of information is included in the resource?
  • Is content of the resource primarily opinion? Is is balanced?
  • Does the creator provide references or sources for data or quotations?

Authority

  • Who is the creator or author?
  • What are the credentials?
  • Who is the published or sponsor?
  • Are they reputable?
  • What is the publisher’s interest (if any) in this information?
  • Are there advertisements on the website?

Purpose/Point of View

  • Is this fact or opinion?
  • the creator/author trying to sell you something?
  • Is it biased?

Though the questions are familiar (I put together a similar list for my research classes), I love the acronym CRAP, as it is descriptive and memorable. I know I’ll be using it, and I hope it helps you keep in mind some of the criteria to consider when evaluating sources.

Productive frustration, lost libraries, and required reading for aspiring writers

As I read  Ben Greenman’s “Lives” essay in today’s New York Times Magazine, this caught my eye:

By supplying answers to questions with such ruthless efficiency, the Internet cuts off the supply of an even more valuable commodity: productive frustration. Education, at least as I remember it, isn’t only, or even primarily, about creating children who are proficient with information. It’s about filling them with questions that ripen, via deferral, into genuine interests.

I like the term “productive frustration” because it is an apt description of part of the research process. Finding quick answers to simple questions is easy, but it shuts down the process. When you wrestle with more complex questions, try to figure out what you need to know and the different ways you might look for it, or can’t find what you’re searching for, it’s an opportunity to think more creatively, explore new paths, feed your curiosity, and make unexpected discoveries. As the Gaga librarians sang, “when it comes to search if it’s not tough it isn’t fun…”

Here are links to some other excellent pieces I read this week:

Craig Fehran’s “Lost Libraries: The strange afterlife of authors’ book collections” describes what happened to the personal libraries of David Foster Wallace, David Markson, John Updike, Mark Twain, and other authors after their deaths:

Most people might imagine that authors’ libraries matter–that scholars and readers should care what books authors read, what they thought about them, what they scribbled in the margins. But far more libraries get dispersed than saved. In fact, David Markson can now take his place in a long and distinguished line of writers whose personal libraries were quickly, casually broken down….

The issues at stake when libraries vanish are bigger than any one author and his books. An author’s library offers unique access to a mind at work, and their treatment provides a look at what exactly the literary world decides to value in an author’s life….

Charles Stross’ post “Why Wikipedia is the writer’s friend” explains why fiction writers should do at least enough research to avoid errors and prevent the collapse of suspension of disbelief. Though I certainly don’t recommend using Wikipedia as your source for research and fact-checking, I strongly agree with his larger point: 

Always do, at a minimum, a brief fact-check on everything you write in a work of fiction with a non-fantastical/far future setting. Otherwise you will be sorry….

Fiction relies upon the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief — if you’re immersed in a novel, it helps not to be jerked up short every ten seconds by the realization that the setup is nonsensical….

John Scalzi’s “Writing: Find the Time or Don’t.” This post should be required reading for all aspiring writers:

So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.

If your answer is “yes,” then the question is simply when and how you find the time to do it. If you spend your free time after work watching TV, turn off the TV and write. If you prefer to spend time with your family when you get home, write a bit after the kids are in bed and before you turn in yourself. If your work makes you too tired to think straight when you get home, wake up early and write a little in the morning before you head off….

And if you can’t manage that, then what you’re saying is that you were lying when you said your answer is “yes.” Because if you really wanted to write, you would find a way to make the time, and you would find a way to actually write….

But if you want to be a writer, than be a writer, for god’s sake…. Find the time or make the time. Sit down, shut up and put your words together. Work at it and keep working at it. And if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.” If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do.

The David Foster Wallace archive

Today the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin announced that the literary archive of David Foster Wallace they acquired after his death is now open to researchers. The archive includes Wallace’s papers, manuscripts, correspondence, teaching materials, and the extensively annotated books from his library.

Here’s a photograph of the inside cover of Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s Players:

The Harry Ransom Center blog has a series of interesting posts about the Wallace archive:

Here are links to more information about the archive:

The Harry Ransom Center is a humanities research library and museum with many extraordinary collections, including exceptional literary archives, manuscripts, and rare books, but you do have to go in person to access them. (They also have a Gutenberg Bible and three copies of the Shakespeare First Folio, among other treasures.)

The BBC radio and television archive website

Thanks to Jay Lake, I discovered that the BBC Archive website contains some fantastic collections of old radio and television content. Here are just a few of the collections that caught my eye:

The full list of collections is here, and the home page has links to some other web resources.

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America”

Today, July 2nd, is the 234th anniversary of American independence. July 4th is the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. For the whole story, see my post from last year, “Why July 2nd is really Independence Day.”

The document above is the original resolution on Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 2nd, 1776, in the hand of Charles Thompson, secretary of the Congress:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and, of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connexion between them, and the state of Great Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

It is from the Papers of the Continental Congress and is housed at the National Archives.

The document above is the first page (of four) of Jefferson’s “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence, written in June 1776, including all the changes made later by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, other members of the committee, and the Continental Congress. It is housed at the Library of Congress, and you can view it in their online exhibit “Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents”. You can compare side-by-side the text of various drafts with the final version here.

Word lovers rejoice: the Historical Thesaurus will be added to OED Online in December

Last October, I blogged at length about the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was only available in two massive print volumes priced just under $400 (though discounted at Amazon.com). As I wrote at the time:

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time….

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

Christian Kay, the editor of the HTOED, read my post and sent me an email noting that there were plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED Online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away.

The good news is that you’ll only have to wait until the end of this year. John Simpson, the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, has announced that the OED Online will be relaunched in December 2010 with major changes, including an integrated online edition of the HTOED:

It’s now just over ten years since the OED first went online in 2000, and these ten years have seen remarkable changes in the number, style, and functionality of online reference sites. The OED Online was a ground-breaking site when it was first launched online, and it has steadily received very positive responses from users.

Later this year we are taking the opportunity to make some major changes to the OED Online, taking into account readers’ comments and our own sense of how we would like the site to develop.

When the two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the OED was published in October 2009 we were immediately asked whether it could be incorporated into the OED Online. At the time, we were testing the feasibility of this, but now we can confirm that the relaunched OED site will contain an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. This means, for instance, that a user viewing the entry for halberd (the early modern weapon combining a spear and a battle-axe) can click to reach the related entries langue de boeuf, glaive, budge, poleaxe, ox-tongue, and partisan—to list only those first recorded between 1450 and 1611.

Here are more details from the OED Online relaunch FAQs:

Q. When will the new OED site launch?

A. The OED site will relaunch in December 2010. As well as the new-look website, the regular quarterly update will be published with new words and revisions of entries across the alphabet.

Q. What new content will be added at launch?

A. The most significant new content is the integration of the Historical Thesaurus of the OED (HTOED) into OED Online. This will allow readers to click through from entries to synonyms by date. The new site will also offer publicly-available feature pieces, providing guides to the OED content and regular commentaries on topical issues in the story of the language.

Q. What new functionality will be added at launch?

A. Amongst other things users will be able to search and browse the OED by a wide variety of criteria including subject, region, usage, or language of origin; see detailed information about the major sources of the OED; view search results as a timeline; and be able personalize the resource by saving searches and entries to their own profile.

Q. Will I have to take out a new subscription to access the HTOED?

A. No, it will be fully integrated and therefore accessible as part of your current subscription.

Individuals can subscribe to the OED Online for $295 a year or $29.95 a month. But you may not need an individual subscription, as many public and university libraries subscribe to it, and some (like the Seattle Public Library) offer free online access from home if you have a library card.

For more about the HTOED, see my original post, “Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.”

Update, 11/30/2010: The new OED website has launched, and it fully integrates the Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

Historic photographs mapped by location

Thanks to ResearchBuzz for pointing out a cool new resource: SepiaTown, a site to search, view, and upload historic photographs by location. The site combines the historic images with modified Google Maps, so you can search or browse by location. Click on an image to see the old photograph and view the date and other details about it. The “image info” link brings up more information, such as the name of the photographer, the source of the photograph, and the source URL. The “then/now” link allows you to compare the historic image to the current Google street view of the same location or building. Many of the images have been uploaded from library digital collections and Flickr Commons (a site I blogged about last year).

Interview about my “Creative Research for Writers” class

Kate Lebo’s interview with me about my May 16th “Creative Research for Writers” class has been posted on the Richard Hugo House blog. Here’s a preview:

Kate Lebo: When I think “research,” I think “Google” or (anachronistically) “card catalog.” Is that what you mean by creative research for writers? Or will your class teach students how to go beyond the card catalog?

Lisa Gold: What I call “creative research” is figuring out what you need to know, why you need to know it, where to find it and how to use it in your writing. It’s also about seeking out a variety of sources to gain knowledge and understand context instead of just searching for discrete facts. The number of soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg is a fact, but understanding what it was like to be a Confederate soldier fighting in that battle is knowledge. That is what you need to write about it in a believable way, bring the events and characters to life and transport your reader to that time and place.

If you only use Google and Wikipedia for your research, you’ll not only have to dig through mountains of junk, you’ll never find all the really great stuff that’s hidden beneath the surface or may not be on the Web at all. I’ll be talking in detail about a wide range of sources and where to find them, as well as how to evaluate sources so you can figure out what’s credible, accurate and useful and take into account their strengths and weaknesses. Though my focus will be on different types of digital and print sources, we’ll also explore other valuable but underused sources—like people, for example….

You can read the entire interview here.

You can still register for the class, which will be held on Sunday, May 16th from 10am to 5pm. See my previous post for details, or follow the link within the interview to register.

Update, 2/19/2014: Hugo House has redesigned their website, so the original page I linked to is gone. I’ve replaced the link with an archived version of the page from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. I’ve also copied the full text of the interview below.

May 12, 2010 Hugo House interview with Lisa Gold

Kate Lebo: When I think “research,” I think “Google” or (anachronistically) “card catalog.” Is that what you mean by creative research for writers? Or will your class teach students how to go beyond the card catalog?

Lisa Gold: What I call “creative research” is figuring out what you need to know, why you need to know it, where to find it and how to use it in your writing. It’s also about seeking out a variety of sources to gain knowledge and understand context instead of just searching for discrete facts. The number of soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg is a fact, but understanding what it was like to be a Confederate soldier fighting in that battle is knowledge. That is what you need to write about it in a believable way, bring the events and characters to life and transport your reader to that time and place.

If you only use Google and Wikipedia for your research, you’ll not only have to dig through mountains of junk, you’ll never find all the really great stuff that’s hidden beneath the surface or may not be on the Web at all. I’ll be talking in detail about a wide range of sources and where to find them, as well as how to evaluate sources so you can figure out what’s credible, accurate and useful and take into account their strengths and weaknesses. Though my focus will be on different types of digital and print sources, we’ll also explore other valuable but underused sources—like people, for example. I’ve also put together an annotated list of selected references and resources to help students with their own research.

KL: How does research lead to better writing?

LG: Creative research can help writers with inspiration, world-building, storytelling and character development. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing about real people or fictional characters, or about living in the past, present, future or an imaginary world—the more you know (or decide) about their day-to-day lives, their worldview and their world, the more real and understandable they will be to you and your readers. John Crowley wrote that these “small details of common life… give actuality, aliveness and thickness” to a story. The point of doing research is to help you tell a great story and breathe life into your characters, not to show off all the cool stuff you’ve found. Kelley Eskridge told me that she tries to “learn enough in research to create a culture in the story that feels real to people who know it, and is accessible to people who don’t… Every ‘research detail’ that makes it into the final story needs to serve a dual purpose—to establish/ground the world of the story and to either serve as an emotional backdrop or reveal an aspect of character.”

KL: What’s the most common hurdle people encounter when doing research for their writing? What’s the best/easiest way to overcome it?

LG: I think the most common mistakes people make are using research as an excuse not to write and not knowing when to stop. You shouldn’t wait until you finish your research to begin writing, and you don’t need to know everything about a subject in order to write about it. Writing and research are interconnected, and each should fuel the other. Don’t let anything stop the writing—if you are missing details, mark the spot with a quick note of what you need, keep writing and fill in the blanks later. Knowing when to stop researching is harder, but you should think carefully and make conscious decisions about what you actually need to know and what you can just make up.

KL: What’s the most creative method you’ve used to find information?

LG: I’m a strong believer in browsing and serendipity, which can lead to amazing discoveries. I spend a lot of time browsing bookstores and the Web, and I like to feed my curiosity and see where it leads. Whenever I’m looking for something in a bookstore or library, I always browse the surrounding books and nearby shelves. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found books much better than the one I was looking for or spotted something that I didn’t need at the time but later proved indispensable. Sometimes you don’t really know what you need until you stumble across it. Talking to people is another great way to uncover information—chances are you know someone or have a family member with unusual interests or expertise or who has done extraordinary things or lived through important historical events or periods.

KL: What kind of research do you do?

LG: I do whatever kind of research my clients need. Because I work with writers of fiction and nonfiction, I’ve researched a really wide range of subjects—life in Victorian London, the rich and their servants in 1930s New York City, cultural and historical trends throughout 20th-century America, American Revolutionary pamphlets and broadsides, as well as an odd miscellany of subjects for my husband (Matt Ruff), to name a few. I like working on unusual creative projects, such as when I encrypted messages into John Wilkins’ 17th-century “Real Character” symbolic language for the promotional campaign for Neal Stephenson’s historical novel “Quicksilver.” My own research is also eclectic, as I have a lot of interests and like to learn stuff, and some of it ends up in my blog.

Register for my May 16th “Creative Research for Writers” class

A reminder that registration is still open for my May 16th all-day “Creative Research for Writers” class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. Here’s the class description:

Creative Research for Writers

Learn how creative research can help writers of fiction and nonfiction, get practical tips and advice on doing research and incorporating it into your writing, and discover how and where to find useful and unusual sources of information on the Web, in books, and in unexpected places.

The class is on Sunday, May 16th from 10am to 5pm and costs $142.00 ($127.80 for Hugo House members). Registration information is here and the Spring 2010 Hugo House course catalog is here.

Search, browse, and share digital images from the Library of Congress

Today the Library of Congress announced the launch of their new and improved Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue (PPOC), making it easier to browse, search, and share LOC’s 1.25 million digital images, including historic photographs, prints and drawings, posters, cartoons, baseball cards, and architectural drawings. Many of the digital images can be downloaded at no charge in different formats (jpegs and tiffs) and resolutions, and the new share/save tool allows you to save images, searches, or collections and post links to them on social networking sites.

The Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue can be found at http://www.loc.gov/pictures and a descriptive list of the digital collections is here. Go browse!

“Books are Weapons in the War of Ideas”: 1942 WWII poster from the U.S. Government Printing Office.

How cutting and pasting can lead to plagiarism

In today’s New York Times, Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s column, titled “Journalistic Shoplifting,” is about the recent plagiarism scandal surrounding Times business reporter Zachery Kouwe.

I wanted to point out this particular passage, in which Hoyt notes that both Zachery Kouwe and Gerald Posner claim that their plagiarism was unintentional, caused by cutting and pasting material from other sources and mixing it up with their own writing:

Kouwe told [John Koblin of the New York Observer] that the plagiarism happened with minor news reported elsewhere that needed to be matched on DealBook. He said he would copy stories from wires, paste them into a file in the editing system, verify the information and then put the material in his own words. At least, he said, that is what he intended to do. When I asked him how he could fail to notice that he was copying someone else’s work, he added further explanation: He said the raw material in the computer files in which he assembled his stories included not only reports from other sources but also context and background from previous articles that he had written himself. When putting it all together, he said, he must have thought the words he copied were his own, earlier ones. “It was just my carelessness in trying to get it up quickly,” he said.

The explanation was similar to one offered only days earlier by Gerald Posner, a reporter for The Daily Beast, who was caught by Jack Shafer of Slate cribbing sentences from The Miami Herald. Posner, who resigned after even more plagiarism was found, also said that he did not do it intentionally. He said he had poured all his research — interviews, public documents, published articles — into a master electronic file and then boiled it into an article under tight Web deadlines, a process that led to disaster.

We’ve seen before how cutting and pasting material written by others can lead to plagiarism, as in the Chris Anderson Free/Wikipedia scandal.

Writers can protect themselves from this kind of  “unintentional plagiarism” by incorporating some simple and practical tips into their research and writing process. In a July 2009 blog post on avoiding plagiarism, I recommended Harvard University’s excellent PDF publication Writing with Internet Sources. The chapter on “Incorporating Electronic Sources into Your Writing” contains a section called “Strategies for Avoiding Internet Plagiarism” (pages 42-44), with important advice for writers:

Internet plagiarism most often occurs when writers cut and paste from the Internet or paraphrase carelessly… The following tips will help you research and write with honesty and integrity.

  • Plan ahead
    … Budget enough time to search for sources, take notes on them, and think about how to use them… Moments of carelessness are more common when you leave your [writing] until the last minute and are tired or stressed. Honest mistakes can lead to charges of plagiarism just as dishonesty can; be careful when note-taking and in the incorporation of ideas and language from electronic sources so you don’t “borrow”—i.e., unintentionally plagiarize—the work of another writer.
  • Print your sources
    Print the relevant pages from any websites you use, making sure that you note the complete URL….
  • File and label your sources
    Never cut and paste information from an electronic source straight into your own [writing]. Instead, open a separate document on your computer for each electronic source so you can file research information. When you cut and paste into that document, make sure to include the full URL….
  • Keep your own writing and your sources separate
    Work with either the printed copy of your source(s) or the copy you pasted into a separate document—not the online version—as you [write]….
  • Keep your notes and your draft separate
    Be careful to keep your research notes separate from your actual draft; this will ensure you don’t cut language from a source and paste it directly into your draft without proper attribution. You can open your notes and your draft next to each other on your computer screen and work back and forth.
  • Acknowledge your sources explicitly when paraphrasing
    In your research notes, use some form of notation to indicate what you’ve paraphrased (e.g., put brace brackets around the paraphrase), and mention the author’s name within the material you paraphrase. Once you start writing and revising, make sure you avoid gradually rewording the paraphrased material until you lose sight of the fact that it is still a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas….
  • Quote your sources properly
    Always use quotation marks for directly quoted material, even for short phrases and key terms….
  • Keep a source trail
    As you write and revise…, keep a source trail of notes and of each successive draft…. You ought to be able to reconstruct the path you took from your sources, to your notes, to your drafts, to your revision….

I also recommend that you read Craig Silverman’s recent column for the Columbia Journalism Review, “The Counter-Plagiarism Handbook: Tips for writers and editors on how to avoid or detect journalistic plagiarism.” Here are two of his useful tips for writers:

  • Use a different font and text color for your research files. This will help you instantly recognize other people’s words when you paste them into your story.
  • Add in the proper attribution as soon as you paste any research into your draft.

My next “Creative Research for Writers” class will be May 16th

On Sunday, May 16th, I’ll be teaching an all-day “Creative Research for Writers” class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. Here’s the class description:

Creative Research for Writers
Learn how creative research can help writers of fiction and nonfiction, get practical tips and advice on doing research and incorporating it into your writing, and discover how and where to find useful and unusual sources of information on the Web, in books, and in unexpected places.

The class will be from 10 am to 5 pm. The cost is $142.00 ($127.80 for Hugo House members), and enrollment is limited to 15.

Registration is now open for Hugo House members by phone (206-322-7030) or in person. Beginning March 2nd, registration will be open to everyone and you can register online or by phone, mail, or fax. Here are links to the registration information and the Spring 2010 course catalog.

Please e-mail me if you have any questions.

Update, 3/3/10: Online registration is now open to all.

Oxford University Press is having a sale

Those of you who share my love of reference books should know that Oxford University Press’ annual Spring Sale has begun. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is unfortunately not on sale, but many other great books are 30%, 50%, or 65% off. (The site is a bit difficult to browse– you have to browse by subject and also by discount– and the sale prices aren’t visible until you place the item in your cart, but your patience will be rewarded.)

While browsing, I spotted these two items which may be of interest to readers of my blog:

Intute–one of the best link collections for research–has lost its funding

I learned today (via Resource Shelf) that Intute, one of my favorite research websites because of its great annotated reference link collection, will lose its funding as of August 2010. From the announcement on Intute’s blog:

We regret to inform our users and contributors that JISC has announced that its funding for Intute will be cut with effect from August 2010. It is JISC policy that, wherever possible, services move from being fully funded by JISC to being sustainable by other means. Unfortunately in the current economic climate no realistic alternative funding model for Intute as it currently stands has been identified.

Despite this JISC has acknowledged the pioneering work of Intute, its value to the community, and the insights it has given into the use of the Internet in education.

Our current service level will be maintained until 1 August 2010. After this date, Intute will still be available but with minimal maintenance….

Intute was created by a group of UK universities as a free online service to help find the best web resources for education and research. The site contains an excellent (and very large) annotated collection of links to web resources that you can search or browse by subject. (Subject specialists select and evaluate the sources and write detailed descriptions.) Intute also provides Internet training with free resources and online tutorials to help develop Internet research skills.

Intute is funded by JISC, the Joint Information Systems Committee, which, according to its website, “inspires UK colleges and universities in the innovative use of digital technologies, helping to maintain the UK’s position as a global leader in education.” Here’s the link to JISC’s statement about cutting off funding for Intute. It sounds like they may keep the site up, but if the database of web sources is not regularly updated and expanded, over time it will become outdated and far less useful.

Sites like Intute are crucially important, as their experts curate the web by finding, evaluating, and highlighting the most useful and credible sources, more of which come online every day. I wonder if there’s any chance of some institution stepping up to provide funding or take over the project.

More from Project Information Literacy: “the librarian approach is based on thoroughness, while the student approach is based on efficiency”

Back in April, I wrote a long post titled “I’m shocked to discover there’s gambling in this casino…” about Project Information Literacy’s February 2009 report, “Finding Context: What Today’s College Students Say About Conducting Research in the Digital Age.” In my post I was somewhat snarky about the report, as you can see from this excerpt:

Surely it isn’t a surprise that:

* Students always procrastinate and are looking for quick and easy answers.

* Students spend an unlimited amount of time and effort on things that interest them, but do the minimum necessary on academic assignments.

* Students universally use the two tools that are the most convenient, familiar, and useful to them– Wikipedia and Google– and they will continue to do so regardless of what their professors say.

* Students don’t know or haven’t been taught how to do research, think critically, find and evaluate sources (online and in the library), and efficiently sift through the overwhelming amount of available information to find what they need.

This month Project Information Literacy released a new and more in-depth report, “Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age”, and it offers some valuable insights and recommendations. Among the report’s conclusions:

When it came to everyday life research, nearly all of the respondents used Google, Wikipedia, and friends for finding context. Almost all of the students used course readings, [online] library resources, and public Internet sites such as Google and Wikipedia, when conducting course-related research—no matter… what resources they had at their disposal.

The relatively consistent pattern of information usage suggests that most students in our study favored a risk-averse and predictable information-seeking strategy. The student approach appears to be learned by rote and reliant on using a small set of resources nearly each and every time.

At the same time, the student approach may sometimes backfire. Using public sites on the Internet, such as Google search, early on, may be one reason why students reportedly find research frustrating in the digital age.

We have found studentsʼ frustrations and challenges involve narrowing down topics, finding relevant resources, sorting through too many results from online searches, and evaluating the credibility of what students choose to use. Still, almost all students used public Internet sites early on, despite their known limitations….

A significant majority of students in our sample–8 in 10–did not ever consult librarians for course-related research assignments. Instead, instructors played an important role in coaching students through the research process…

When it comes to finding information and conducting research, today’s students clearly favor brevity, consensus, and currency in the information sources they seek… [They] have defined their preferences for information sources in a world where credibility, veracity, and intellectual authority are less of a given–or even an expectation from students–with each passing day.

All in all, we are reminded of a comment from one student… about using books from the campus library: “Books, do I use them? Not really, they are antiquated interfaces. You have to look in an index, way in the back, and it’s not even hypertexted linked.”

Today’s students are not lazy or unthinking. This student, representing many, looks at information sources, systems, and services as to how well they meet his or her needs in terms of content, accessibility, and usefulness….

So students prefer to use web sources like Google and Wikipedia because they are fast, convenient, familiar, and produce results, meeting their needs for “content, accessibility, and usefulness.” Of all of the library resources provided to students, online scholarly research databases are used the most, as not only do instructors require their use to find credible content, but they are easy to search. Students aren’t using resources like books, even when they are better and more authoritative for academic research, because they take more time, thought, and effort to find and use, and they can’t be quickly and easily searched. This makes sense– today’s college students are digital natives.

I didn’t understand why so few students use librarians as a resource until I read about the “critical difference between the students’ approach and the librarians’ approach” to research:

“The library guide recommends beginning course-related research by using library resources to identify and narrow down a topic. These resources, the library catalog and periodical indices, are all vetted, credible, and authoritative. Only much later in the research process, and only after a topic has been safely nailed down, does the guide recommends turning to Internet resources, such as Google… The student approach is different… [They] reported using public Internet sources (i.e. Google and Wikipedia) in their initial stages of research for a variety of reasons, which included a belief that the Internet is an all-inclusive information resource… All in all, the librarian approach is based on thoroughness, while the student approach is based on efficiency. To that end, librarians suggest using scholarly resources, while many students in our study used a wide range of resources that deliver an abundance of results early on, whether they are scholarly or not. As a whole, the findings suggest that students in our sample favored sources for their brevity, consensus, and currency over other qualities and less so, for their scholarly authority.

At the end of the report, the authors make a series of recommendations, of which I thought these were particularly important:

Course-related research assignments should not indirectly encourage students to half-heartedly engage in a narrow exploration of the digital landscape (e.g., assignments that state requirements such as, “must use five sources cited in your paper”). Administrators, faculty, and librarians should examine whether research-based assignments result in opening studentsʼ minds to expand their information-gathering competencies. Instead, we recommend that students be given course-related research assignments that encourage the collection, analysis, and synthesis of multiple viewpoints from a variety of sources, so the transfer of information literacy and critical thinking competencies may be more actively called up, practiced, and learned by students…

Our work leads us to draw an important distinction between library services and library resources… For the most part, in our study, librarians were left out of the student research workflow, despite librariansʼ vast training and expertise in finding information. Librarians should systematically (not just anecdotally) examine the services they provide to students… Questions should be addressed about how and why services and resources are used—not only how often (e.g., circulation or reference desk statistics). Librarians may want to initiate their analysis by asking what percentage of their campus are using the library, for what particular resources or services, and why or why not?

So what do you think? How can we expand the minds and research methods of digital natives? We can’t convert all information to digital form, so are there ways to pry them away from their computers and into the stacks? Should we even try? Rather than trying to change the ways they do research, should we instead focus on teaching them to improve their web search skills and find and evaluate digital sources? Can we provide better or more authoritative alternatives to Wikipedia and Google, or make it easier to find academic sources with one search? How can we make academic research more interesting and creative for students?

I welcome your comments and ideas.

People I like have been doing interesting things

Though I haven’t blogged much of late, people I like have been doing interesting things that I wanted to share:

Nisi Shawl posted her essay “Transracial Writing for the Sincere” on the SFWA website, in which she gives great advice on doing research (using people and primary sources) and writing characters of different races and backgrounds. The essay is part of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, the companion book to Nisi and Cynthia Ward’s “Writing the Other” fiction writing workshops. Last year Nisi published Filter House, her award-winning short fiction collection.

Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge started Sterling Editing to offer editing, mentoring, and coaching for writers. Their website has excellent advice and links to resources for writers, and I particularly like their “editcasts.”

– Speaking of Kelley, she’ll be teaching a six-week class called “The Whole Story” at Richard Hugo House starting January 27th. Her class will “explore essential elements of good short fiction: structure, point of view, plotting, character development, description and dialogue….” Other notable Winter 2010 Hugo House classes include Geoff Ryman’s December 19th one-day class “Writing Story, Writing Plot,” and Nancy Kress’s six-week class “Writing Fiction: A Critique Class.” Details and registration information can be found here. (I will not be teaching at Hugo House this winter, but I will probably be teaching another all-day “Creative Research for Writers” class there in the spring.)

Justine Larbalestier came to Seattle on book tour for her new novel, Liar, and we spent an enjoyable evening with her and Ted Chiang.

John Crowley received a wonderful birthday greeting on December 1st from Garrison Keiller’s Writer’s Almanac. An excerpt:

His books are sometimes called fantasy or science fiction and sometimes just fiction. John Crowley said, “It’s probably central to the nature of fiction altogether, to try to enter into lost worlds, or enter into ‘the lost’ in some way.” And he has created many strange and lost worlds in his fiction, worlds that are on the one hand recognizable to us, and on the other slightly altered, filled with magic… When the critic Harold Bloom was asked to write about one book that changed his life, he mentioned writing by Shakespeare, William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, but the book he finally chose was Little, Big. He said: “So perpetually fresh is this book, changing each time I reread it, that I find it virtually impossible to describe, and scarcely can summarize it. I pick it up again at odd moments, sometimes when I wake up at night and can’t fall back asleep. Though it is a good-sized volume, I think I remember every page. Little, Big is for readers from nine to ninety, because it naturalizes and renders domestic the marvelous….”

Linda Stone, the fascinating thinker, writer, and speaker who coined the terms “continuous partial attention” and “email apnea,” has a new blog/website at lindastone.net. Go explore and join the conversation.

Matt Ruff (my husband) has sold his novel-in-progress, The Mirage, to HarperCollins. He’s been too busy writing the book to blog about it, which is why I’m mentioning it here, but he promises he’ll eventually post more details on his blog.

Update: Matt blogged about The Mirage on December 15th.

“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale.”

Nicola Griffith blogged yesterday about the historical novel she’s writing and different approaches to writing historical fiction:

There’s the hey, anything goes, just use the period as window dressing around a fab story camp, and there’s the never, ever, don’t evereverever, contravene what is known to be known people. (There’s an article in MACLEANS.CA that lays this out by illustrating the difference between the attitudes of Hilary Mantel and Kate Pullinger.)

Here’s an even more interesting piece from Magistra et Mater: an historian explains why she no longer reads historical fiction.

Me? Well, I love getting things right. I’ve done a lot of research on Hild and her time (some casual, some deep and complex). But I’m a novelist; I also occasionally can’t resist just fucking with things. Sometimes, though, it seems I fuck with things in just the right way–and those are fabulous moments when I know I’m really beginning to get a feel for the period. (At least in some senses.)

This seemed like a good opportunity to mention some related issues I’ve talked about in my classes on creative research for writers:

  • The research process is completely different for each writer and project. Some authors do the minimum necessary and fake the rest, others completely immerse themselves or become experts on their subject or period. There isn’t a right or wrong way–you have to figure out what works for you.
  • Think carefully about what you really need to know, why you need to know it, and what you can just make up. What degree of accuracy and authenticity are you trying to achieve? What can or should you fictionalize?
  • Decide what game you’re playing. Make conscious choices about straying from history or reality when it serves your story and your characters, but understand that some readers and critics will be unhappy about it.

John Scalzi touched on this in his recent blog post about science fiction worldbuilding. For him it’s about plausibility, keeping “the audience engaged all the way through the work without once saying, ‘now, wait just a minute…’”:

Other worldbuilders will have to answer this one when talking about their own works, but as for me, in general, I try to build my worlds at least two questions deep — that is, you make your creations robust enough to stand up to a general question and then a more specific followup question….

And for about 90% of your readers, that’s going to be sufficient rationale. For about 10% of your readers, it won’t be, but at some point, and simply as a practical matter, you realize that some folks aren’t going to be happy with your worldbuilding no matter how far you drill down, and that you can just sort of accept that as the cost of doing business in a geek-rich field like science fiction. To a very real extent, what you’re aiming for is sufficiency, not completeness.

Here are a few other links about writing historical fiction:

An interesting August 2009 BBC radio broadcast in which “Mark Lawson examines the differences between factual and fictional writers of history and between academics and populists in the telling of stories from our heritage. Writers Antonia Fraser, Margaret MacMillan, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Dunant and Tristram Hunt join Mark to discuss the best ways of exploring the past.”

Susan Vreeland’s thoughts on writing historical fiction.

A 1998 essay by Anne Scott MacLeod, “Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction,” about revisionism in historical novels for children:

But people of the past were not just us in odd clothing. They were people who saw the world differently; approached human relationships differently; people for whom night and day, heat and cold, seasons and work and play had meanings lost to an industrialized world. Even if human nature is much the same over time, human experience, perhaps especially everyday experience, is not. To wash these differences out of historical fictions is not only a denial of historical truth, but a failure of imagination and understanding that is as important to the present as to the past.

And on a lighter note, there’s History-Spork, a very funny blog in which historians review Hollywood movies.

By the way, the title of this post comes from a quotation attributed to historical novelist William Martin:

The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.

Does anyone happen to know the original source of this quotation?

Update, 11/13: I emailed William Martin directly to ask about this quote, and he says it is indeed his, and it appears in the February 2000 issue of The Writer magazine. Thanks to the Seattle Public Library’s electronic databases, I was able to find his essay, which is titled “First-Person Narrators in Historical Fiction.”

Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

Matt and I recently had the opportunity to spend some time browsing through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

I began by reading the introduction. He began by looking up curse words. Once he had satisfied his curiosity about when certain very popular profanities first entered the English language, he turned his attention to the more unusual words within the inferior persons, as abused subcategory that have fallen out of use, such as windfucker (1602 to 1616), hog-rubber (1614 to 1621), chuff-cat (1653), shit-sack (1769 to 1785), and son of a sea-cook (1806 to 1977). This led to an animated discussion of the common themes that connected many of the words—comparisons to animals, sex with relatives or objects, and the inability to control one’s bowels.

That’s what happens when you put the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary within reach of a writer.

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time.

It took forty-four years to bring the HTOED to publication, overcoming what the editors politely describe as “a series of intellectual, financial, and domestic challenges.” About 800,000 meanings from the OED were transcribed onto slips of paper and organized into a unique classification system with over 236,000 categories and subcategories. A fire in 1978 would have destroyed a decade of work but for the fact that the paper slips were stored in a metal filing cabinet. They could have finished making slips by 1980, but the decision was made to add new material from the second edition of the OED and the supplements. Computers were eventually used to enter, store, and retrieve data, but much of the work continued to be done by hand.

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

The classification system of the HTOED is mind-bogglingly complex, forming a hierarchy of meaning from the general to the specific. At the highest level are the three main sections—the external world, the mental world, and the social world—which divide into 26 major categories, such as the earth, life, emotion, society, morality, faith, armed hostility, and communication. These branch into more detailed categories like food, clothing, people, animals, transport, love, moral evil, and sexual relations. More specific categories and subcategories lead to the synonyms and related words, which are organized by part of speech and listed chronologically with the date of the first recorded use in English and, for obsolete words, the last recorded use. (I recommend reading the “guide to the use of the thesaurus” to get your bearings.)

Each level in this hierarchy of meaning is assigned a two-digit number, which when combined creates identification numbers for every word in the thesaurus. Some words have many identification numbers because they have numerous meanings or have changed their meanings over time and thus appear in different locations within the thesaurus.

For example, in the alphabetical index, the first identification number for the noun serendipity, one of my favorite words, is 01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01, locating it in the thesaurus within these nested categories and subcategories:

01                                                         the external world
01.05                                                  existence in time and space
01.05.05                                           action/operation
01.05.05.10                                    endeavour
01.05.05.10.02                             searching/seeking
01.05.05.10.02.01 (n.)              finding/discovery (noun)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10               accidentally (subcategory)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01        faculty of making happy discoveries by chance

Here you’ll find that the noun serendipity was first cited in 1754. After the finding/discovery (noun) category is the finding/discovery (adjective) category, in which serendipitous (01.05.05.10.02.01|03) dates from 1958.

The HTOED will clearly be important to the study of the English language, but it also could contribute to other subjects, especially history, literature, and culture. The descriptions of life and the earth over centuries are like crash courses in the history of science and medicine. Cultural historians will look for clues in our language to our attitudes about gender, race, and class, as with the words used to describe women based on animals (mare, hen, cow, heifer, bird) or clothing (skirt, smock, petticoat). Advancements in technology are reflected in subjects like travel, tools, telecommunications, and computing. Shakespeare scholars will be able to compare the words in use during his lifetime and argue about the reasons for his word choices. Even a category like clothing can reveal shifts in morality, as when underwear became unmentionables in 1823.

I believe the HTOED could be a rich source of inspiration and world-building for writers. Historical novelists could gain insight into the past and how people lived, what they knew and believed, and how they described their own world. And they’ll know whether the words their characters are speaking were actually in use at the time. (Elizabethans would not have called a packed meal a picnic, as it was first cited in 1748.)  Fantasy writers may unearth ideas in forgotten names or descriptions of supernatural beings and mythical creatures. Poets can reintroduce lyrical and imaginative words that have fallen out of use, such as candel (Old English to 1634), luminair (1456 to 1560), or streamer (1513 to 1647), all of which once described heavenly bodies. Eclectic writers like my husband who have a strong love of word-play and enjoy collecting unusual bits of knowledge will find it addictive.

Let’s say you’d like to take advantage of the current craze for vampires or literary monster mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The HTOED can tell you when different monsters first entered our nightmares and what we called them at distinct points in time. Follow the hierarchy of categories from the external world to the supernatural to supernatural being/spirit to malignant monster (noun). Here you’ll find that the word vampyre was first cited in 1734, followed by vampire in 1796. Though vampire is still in use today, the last recorded OED citation for vampyre was in 1847. Referring to vampires as undead didn’t begin until 1897. Werewolves trace all the way back to the Old English werewulf, lycanthrope was first cited in 1813 and is still in use, but the more poetic turnskin entered the language in 1831 and exited forty years later. Oh, and zombie was first cited in 1819, two years after the death of Jane Austen.

The editors have included all those words that have been too controversial for some other dictionaries and thesauruses. Curse words, sexual slang, and offensive slurs for racial and sexual minorities appear dispassionately in their chronological place among their less inflammatory cousins. Reading certain entries may cause shock, disgust, or pain, but there is value in putting these powerful words in their historical context. If you are easily offended or prefer your works expurgated, consider yourself warned.

Priced at $395 (on sale at Amazon for $316), the HTOED will unfortunately be out of reach for many of the writers and word lovers who might appreciate it, so keep it mind if you are looking for a fabulous gift for your favorite logophile.

For more information, check out this OUP website for the HTOED and this OUP blog post with “fun facts and figures” about the work. Here’s the link to a sample page from the work at the OUP website.

UPDATE, 10/28/09: I received an email from Christian Kay, editor of the HTOED. There are indeed plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away. There are no plans for a CD version. So it looks like the books will be the only option for quite some time.

NEW UPDATE, 6/18/10: The Oxford English Dictionary Online will be relaunched in December 2010 and will include an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. See my blog post “Word lovers rejoice” for more information.

NEW UPDATE, 11/30/10: The new OED website has launched, fully integrating the online Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

Registration is still open for my October 25th class

There’s still time to register for my October 25th Creative Research for Writers class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle:

Creative research can help writers of fiction and nonfiction with inspiration, storytelling, and world-building whether they are writing about the past, present, or future, about life on earth or an imaginary world. We’ll discuss the relationship between research and writing, different types of research writers may need to do, practical tips and advice on doing research, and how and where to find useful and unusual sources of information on the Web, in books, databases, and libraries, and in unexpected places.

The class will be from 10am to 5pm on Sunday, October 25th, and the cost is $127.80 for Hugo House members or $142.00 for non-members. You can register online, by phone (206-322-7030), by fax or mail, or in person. The fall 2009 course catalog and registration information are here, and my original August post about the class is here.

Library of Congress World War I posters now online

The Library of Congress has photographed and made available online 1,900 World War I posters created between 1914 and 1920.  The majority of the posters are from the United States, but the collection also includes posters from Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and Russia. Here’s some background from the introduction to the collection:

During World War I, the impact of the poster as a means of communication was greater than at any other time during history. The ability of posters to inspire, inform, and persuade combined with vibrant design trends in many of the participating countries to produce thousands of interesting visual works. As a valuable historical research resource, the posters provide multiple points of view for understanding this global conflict. As artistic works, the posters range in style from graphically vibrant works by well-known designers to anonymous broadsides (predominantly text).

The Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division has extensive holdings of World War I era posters. Available online are approximately 1,900 posters created between 1914 and 1920. Most relate directly to the war, but some German posters date from the post-war period and illustrate events such as the rise of Bolshevism and Communism, the 1919 General Assembly election and various plebiscites….

The poster was a major tool for broad dissemination of information during the war. Countries on both sides of the conflict distributed posters widely to garner support, urge action, and boost morale… Even with its late entry into the war, the United States produced more posters than any other country….

All of these posters are in the public domain the United States, and you can download free digital files directly from the Library of Congress website or purchase photographic copies. Here are two of the posters:

Patriotic Canadians

it's up to you

There’s lots of other great stuff in the LOC’s Prints and Photographs Division–historic photographs (including Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs, Ansel Adams’s Manzanar War Relocation Center photographs, and many newspaper and magazine archives), fine prints and posters, baseball cards, cartoons, and so on. Here are links to the online catalogue and the collection and subject overview, so go browse. (An important note: some of this material is still under copyright. See the LOC’s rights and restrictions information for details and the copyright status of specific collections.)

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books…”

According to this Boston Globe article, the Cushing Academy, a New England prep school, is replacing all of its library books with a digital “learning center”:

This year, after having amassed a collection of more than 20,000 books, officials at the pristine campus about 90 minutes west of Boston have decided the 144-year-old school no longer needs a traditional library. The academy’s administrators have decided to discard all their books and have given away half of what stocked their sprawling stacks – the classics, novels, poetry, biographies, tomes on every subject from the humanities to the sciences. The future, they believe, is digital.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a “learning center,’’ though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

And to replace those old pulpy devices that have transmitted information since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, they have spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by Amazon.com and Sony… Those who don’t have access to the electronic readers will be expected to do their research and peruse many assigned texts on their computers…

Cushing is one of the first schools in the country to abandon its books….

This is stupid on so many levels that I forced myself to wait a full day before blogging about it so I wouldn’t rant incoherently. Let me just pose a few questions:

  • Did the librarians of Cushing Academy try to explain to their headmaster that only a small percentage of works are available in digital form, and that most of those aren’t free?
  • Before discarding their 20,000 printed books, did they consider checking to see which ones aren’t available in digital form and keeping those? (In my experience many of the best reference works only exist in print form.)
  • Did they think about the fact that even if the library pays to subscribe to subscription databases and encourages the use of free public domain works (Google Books, Project Gutenberg, etc.), that still means students won’t have access to the vast majority of works published after 1922 and still under copyright?
  • What happens when students try to do research using Google Books and discover that the works they need are only available in print form and they can’t view more than a snippet of text online? Has Cushing Academy set up any kind of interlibrary loan program so students can get access to the printed books they need?
  • Will teachers at the school be limited to using only texts available in digital form?
  • Will students be instructed in how to find, use, evaluate, and cite digital sources? (Perhaps we should start calling the Cushing Academy “the Wikipedia school.”)
  • What’s going to happen when these kids go off to college and discover that they don’t have a clue how to find or use printed sources? Will they even know that there’s a whole world of knowledge not available to them on the internet?
  • Were the parents told about this in advance so they could choose to send their children to another school instead? (Especially since this year’s tuition for the Cushing Academy boarding school is over $42,000 and the day school is over $31,000.)

I could go on, but I’m going to stop now before my head explodes. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the transcript of a talk that James Tracy (the headmaster) gave about “Libraries Beyond Books,” which is posted on the Cushing Academy website:

This is why, at Cushing Academy, where we are dedicated to forging the most far-sighted pedagogies for twenty-first century education, we have decided to be bookless within a year.

You know [holding up a book], if I look at this book I am struck by how limited it is. This is pretty bulky. I don’t mean to belittle or disparage it. I love books, and I love the representation of culture that they embody, but, from an information perspective, this is a very, very bulky way to reposit data by today’s standards.

We should be able to hold not only this book but thousands of others in one hand. So Cushing has decided to go from a library that right now is a warehouse of 20,000 books shelved in old technology to a library of millions of books utilizing far less space and with much richer and more powerful means of accessing that information. If I want to research all the references to Churchill just in our little 20,000 volume library, it’s going to take me months and years, but I can now data mine every reference to Churchill in 7 million volumes in a matter of seconds using search engines. Moreover, we find from a check of the records that our students aren’t really using the books extensively for research, anyway. They’re already doing most of that online, and, in fact, they are checking out more music and films than books from the Cushing library.

I’ll tell you that, with the financial crisis, as a Headmaster, I no longer see the point of maintaining this huge warehouse of underutilized space that we call a library. Better to free up that space while at the same time expanding by many orders of magnitude the school community’s access to information, literature, art, music via terminals that I term “Portals to Civilization.”

In praise of browsing

For me, an important element of creative research is serendipity, which the OED defines as “making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” Browsing is a great way to open yourself to serendipity, but it is unfortunately becoming a lost art in this digital age.

Browsing and searching are different– browsing is about the journey, searching is about the destination. Searching is focused on finding specific information quickly and often leads to tunnel-vision, which can prevent you from recognizing useful sources that don’t match your preconceived ideas and assumptions. Browsing is about slowing down, opening your eyes, feeding your curiosity, and allowing yourself the opportunity to make discoveries.

I believe it’s important to set aside time to browse on a regular basis– not just on the web, but in the physical world as well. Spend time exploring different bookstores (both new and used), visit libraries and museums, and search out unusual places you’ve never visited. Take a different route, walk around neighborhoods you don’t live in, look for hidden treasures.

Whenever you are looking for something in a bookstore or library, always browse the surrounding books and nearby shelves. I can’t tell you the number of times that I found books much better than the one I was looking for by doing this. Sometimes you don’t really know what you need until you find it.

Remind yourself to occasionally browse unfamiliar sections or subjects in bookstores and libraries, rather than only the ones you think will be of interest to you. Bookstores (especially those selling used books) each have their own idiosyncratic system of categorizing, so what you want may be in a section you never visit, and if you change your routine you might stumble across amazing things you aren’t looking for.

Use sources to lead you to other sources. Whenever you are looking at a book or article, browse the bibliographies or lists of references cited, as this will often reveal useful sources you might not have found on your own. When you discover an interesting blog or website, check out the list of links and bookmark those that may be useful to you. Talk to people and ask them for recommendations.

If something arouses your curiosity or inspires you, embrace the creative impulse and and see where it leads. Write stuff down. Let your mind wander.

I hope you’ll all spend some time browsing this holiday weekend. You never know what you might discover….

My October 25th “Creative Research for Writers” class

On Sunday, October 25th, I’ll be teaching an all-day “Creative Research for Writers” class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. Here’s the description:

Creative research can help writers of fiction and nonfiction with inspiration, storytelling, and world-building whether they are writing about the past, present, or future, about life on earth or an imaginary world. We’ll discuss the relationship between research and writing, different types of research writers may need to do, practical tips and advice on doing research, and how and where to find useful and unusual sources of information on the Web, in books, databases, and libraries, and in unexpected places.

Matt Ruff will be my special guest and share his experiences with using research in fiction.

The class will be from 10am to 5pm (six hours of class and a lunch break). My May 9th “Research for Writers” class was four hours, but my students and I felt that wasn’t enough time, so I arranged for my next class be longer.

The cost is $127.80 for Hugo House members or $142.00 for non-members, and enrollment is limited to 15.

Registration begins August 18th for Hugo House members and August 25th for non-members. During the first week of member registration, you can register by telephone (206-322-7030) or in person. Once general registration begins on August 25th, you can also register online or by mail or fax. Here’s the link to the registration information.

Here’s the link to the Fall 2009 Hugo House class catalog. Of particular note:  John Crowley will be teaching a one-day class called “The Further In You Go The Bigger It Gets: Using the Deep Structures of Fantasy” and Nancy Kress will be teaching a six-week class called “Writing Fiction: A Critique Class.”

Please email me if you have any questions about my class or if you would like information about customized private classes/workshops for groups or individual coaching.