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Why Libraries Still Matter to Writers
by Ellen Metter

Return to Starting Your Writing Career · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Some sarcastic articles have appeared of late that say "Sure libraries matter -- now that they've added coffee bars." Though I'm a strong supporter of latté in libraries, java is not the only reason for keeping your library card!

After two decades of fielding reference questions in academic libraries, I've concluded that most researchers benefit from what I call the 'information triad.' The triad refers to gathering information from three major sources: online information; facts and anecdotes from experts; and print resources. This last spoke on the axis (and I promise it's not an evil one) is the most neglected.

Though the Web has become an astounding repository of information, 'everything' is still not there. And some of what is there comes with a price tag that not every humble writer, including myself, can afford.

So why use libraries? Ah! Allow me to rhapsodize.

Reason #1: Libraries are Free, Free, Free!

To be scrupulously accurate, libraries are not free because your taxpayer dollars support them. However, the yearly library expenditure per taxpayer doesn't exceed double-digits anywhere in the U.S. We're talking bargain.

Reason #2: Libraries Offer Quality-Added Online Databases.

Subscription-based databases, part of the blue light special at libraries, are now fairly standard at public libraries. However, if you want to be happily overwhelmed, visit a college library. The academic library that employs me spends about a half a million dollars on commercial databases, and that's not atypical.

Why are these databases 'quality-added?' Because these pricey databases often offer such extras as:

  • Specialized information that would not be cost effective to offer for free. Thus you don't find their equivalent free on the Web.

  • Advanced search options such as the ability to restrict searches to only peer-reviewed journals or to specific "fields" such as subject headings.

  • Large staffs working on them, with individuals continually updating information, fact checking, and arranging information in accessible formats (creating of standardized keywords and subject phrases, for example.)

Just a few of the databases the writer-off-the-street could use at my academic library include: PsycInfo, the premier index to psychology journals and book chapters; The Philosopher's Index, an index to scholarly philosophical writings; FIS Online, an enormous compilation of business financial data; and the Alternative Press Index, where you can search many years of article citations from "alternative, radical, and left" publications.

Even when libraries don't have online versions of these subject-specific indexes, they often have the print version. These old-fashioned sets are cumbersome to use -- but they also offer delights not found on the Internet.

Tip: Browse through a decades-old index to see what articles were hot. Is it time to resurrect some of these topics?

Admittedly, there are inexpensive article databases on the Internet. But these databases are not all-inclusive and most writers will find, at some point, they need access to more information.

Many public libraries supply their patrons with remote access to their databases. See if yours does. Academic libraries won't give non-students at-home access to their databases — that would be against their licensing agreements. However, most college libraries that are open to the public allow use of most or all of their online databases to anyone who enters the library.

Tip: Many, many, college libraries are open to the public at no charge. You may find, depending on your subject, that they serve your needs better than the public library. Use 'em!

Reason #3: Subject-Specific Reference Books Live at Libraries.

Many unique -- and expensive -- print directories sit quietly at libraries. Until writers learn about them and yank them off the shelf, of course. Ideally, directories that need regular updating are better suited to online life, where they can be regularly updated. And indeed, some print directories found in libraries do also exist online -- but that pretty price tag is attached.

An example of a great directory known to many writers is Ulrich's International Periodicals Directory, which sometimes has a place of honor at libraries (often on centrally located shelving near the reference desk). Ulrich's lists thousands of magazines, journals, newsletters, newspapers, and other serially produced publications worldwide. It's a fantastic resource for identifying potential writing and promotional markets. Yes, you can get to the home page of most publications listed in Ulrich's on the Internet. But the process of quickly identifying international serial titles in a specific discipline is much more efficient in Ulrich's.

Another well-known writer favorite, The Literary Market Place (LMP), supplies names of agents, publishers, printers, and just about anyone else related to the publishing industry. An abridged version of LMP is free on the Web (http://www.literarymarketplace.com) and full information can be obtained through a subscription. Being the frugal gal that I am, I still use the print copy of the U.S. and international version available at just about every public and academic library.

Beyond such familiar names as LMP, libraries also offer directories that cover narrow subject areas, such as the USA Oil Industry Directory (Tulsa: Pennwell), Aviation Week's World Aviation Directory (NY: McGraw Hill), and Below-the-Line-Talent: The Most Complete Directory of Cinematographers, Production Designers, Costume Designers, Film Editors, Set Directors, and Art Directors (LA: Lone Eagle), all produced annually.

There are other gems in the guise of books shining in the reference stacks. For example, specialized encyclopedias can supply authoritative overviews on niche topics or present hard-to-find facts gathered in one place. There are, to be sure, Web-based overview collections available for no or low fee, including the wonderful InfoPlease site (http://www.infoplease.com), and even some specialized ones, such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/). But many subject-specific encyclopedic texts -- the kind that help writers get a grip on a new subject of fill in needed facts -- are still wearing paper and cloth and living in libraries.

For example, mystery writers should get gooseflesh at the mere title of the three volume Encyclopedia of Forensic Sciences (Academic Press, 2000). This cheery collection supplies multi-page sections on such topics as the ‘Excavation and Retrieval of Forensic Remains,' 'Voice Analysis,' and the study of ‘Ear Prints.' The classic McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama (McGraw Hill, 1984) supplies not less than a dozen pages on the topic of "Romanian World Drama" and the Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures (NY: Garland, 2000) supplies commentary on such topics as French Literature and Greenwich Village.

Tip: When using an online library catalog, find fact books by combining a subject word or phrase with one of these words: encyclopedias, almanacs, or directories, i.e. DRUGS ALMANACS, OIL DIRECTORIES or DEMOCRACY ENCYCLOPEDIAS. Note that you can usually check the library catalog on the Web before you get to the library.

Reason #4: Libraries Are Home to the Unusual and Specialized.

Libraries collect some resources that only a few passionate people care about -- i.e. writers and historians. I would hurry to say that libraries are certainly not the only repositories of the, uh, weird, since the Web has definitely stepped up front and center when it comes to fringe information. However, the special collections of general libraries and special libraries (for example, libraries that focus on such topics as alternative energy or museum libraries), will often be the only places that offer access to the full-text of some obscure manuscripts, diaries, and letters, as well as objects such as photographs, art pieces, and posters.

The annually produced Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers (Detroit: Gale) is handy when looking for the contents (not just the name and location) of archives around the U.S and Canada. As the subtitle says, it leads to "more than 34,000 special libraries, research libraries, information centers, archives, and data centers maintained by government agencies." This directory helps locate such wonderful collections as the Marine Band Library in Washington, D.C. which has photographs, personal items, and other resources related to the John Philip Sousa Band; the Lakota Archives and Historical Research Center, home to oral histories of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in Rosebud, South Dakota; and, in New Jersey, the Nutley Historical Society Museum, which tends memorabilia in the Annie Oakley Collection.

Reason #5: Scholarly Material Waits Haughtily for You in Libraries.

Mark Y. Herring notes in the April 2001 issue of the magazine American Libraries that "only about 8% of all journals are on the Web." And of course a good number of those can't be had for free.

Scholarly journal articles go through a rigorous review process. Does this mean articles that are not peer-reviewed are garbage? No. But peer-reviewed journals are practically guaranteed to present information that has been rigorously examined and also offer an avenue for identifying experts. It's always good to keep in mind that any hare-brained guy or gal can simply upload to the Internet -- and many do.

Libraries are the places that buy dry but useful PhD-penned tomes and niche journals that delight only a few thousand scientists -- small but tasty tidbits in a world of magazines like People, with its more than 3 million readers. And when you find yourself doing a freelance article on a topic related to neuroimmunology you're going to be happy to obtain a copy of an article via your library's interlibrary loan system since a subscription to the Journal of Neuroimmunology costs $3,951 per year!

Reason #6: Catalogers, Bless Their Souls, Work in Libraries.

"The anarchic nature of the Internet and lack of sophistication in search engines can make searching an exercise in frustration. Obtaining a range and depth of material on a topic can be difficult and the lack of quality control can lead to misleading information." This quote from The Nelson Mail (Major Issues Facing Libraries, unsigned editorial), August 30, 2000, Pg. 15) nicely summarizes a problem that continues to plague the Internet: more than a touch of anarchy.

The business of libraries and librarians has always been to figure out how to disseminate and organize billions of bits of information. They've managed to do so reasonably well, even before the advent of online access, by sharing organizational schemes like the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress Classification systems and the use of controlled vocabulary. The Web improves by leaps and bounds in this arena all the time. Search engines like Google show that the Web can be used to often easily and effectively find much of what you need. But -- in many respects -- the Web is still the Wild West. The mix of non-profit/educational and commercial sites makes for bed-fellows who would often rather be sleeping on the couch.

Thanks to classification systems, you can browse wisely in libraries. Once you get a call number or two from the library's catalog related to the subject you're interested in, you can peruse the areas around those call numbers and find related books of interest. Though bookstores do loosely categorize materials, overall, the arrangement is a mish mash. Libraries house the subjects-within-the-subjects near each other.

Reason #7: Libraries Cooperate.

Libraries hold hands when it comes to sharing materials and that helps researchers. You can get just about any article or book you need at no or low cost from your library's interlibrary loan department. That's possible because many libraries all over the world can easily search each other's holdings and are willing to loan out what they own. So when you need that twenty-year-old article from SomeTinyLittleTown Newspaper, interlibrary loan will likely be the answer.

Reason #8: Librarians Up Close and Personal.

Reference librarians are information experts who hold master's degrees in Library Science, Information Studies, or Information Systems. They make it their business to learn the most efficient ways to find authoritative information in print and on the Web. They'll help you refine your search strategy to pinpoint precisely what you want. Also, the day-to-day experience of fielding reference queries in a huge range of subject areas quickly sharpens their information gathering skills.

Are there some librarians still in the dark about the latest ways to find information? Some. But fewer and fewer. They can't be if they want to keep their jobs. The pressure has been on for years from patrons who demand cutting edge techniques for locating information. Libraries have responded to patron demands and our own desire to improve access to materials with librarian training, innovations in cataloging (such as linking quality Web sites to library catalogs), more computers in libraries, and interaction with publishers and database vendors, offering recommendations for improved access and needed materials. Tip: Most library-users never approach librarians! Give it a try and see what you think.

Reason #9:Keeping the Old Stuff.

A patron once brought me a decrepit looking book and said -- do you really want to keep this thing? It's a mess! Of course the man was showing me an extremely well-loved book, now out-of-print, unavailable from even bookstores specializing in hard-to-find items. Needless to say the book went back on the shelf and it will be there if you need it.

Reason #10: Serendipity.

Strolling the aisles of a library is much different than browsing a new or used bookstore. Libraries keep ancient items that look like garbage to some -- and treasures to others. That's why 'weeding' an academic library (pulling books for discard) is an absolute agony for collection development librarians like me. My colleagues and I had no idea how often readers wanted to take out never-used books — until we shipped those books to storage and began getting requests for at least some of them. Meander down a random library aisle and see what you find.

Reason #11: Libraries Supply You With Books You Need for a Little While.

It may be virtually heresy in a writing publication to recommend borrowing instead of buying a book -- but -- sometimes you just need a tiny section of book or just need to quickly browse through a book. For example, if you're writing a book and want to be sure there are none like yours already out there, you scan places like Amazon.com and Books in Print to see what similar titles are out there, right? But often, without seeing the titles and sitting down with them for a bit, you just don't know how similar the book is to yours. And if the book similar to yours was written more than five years ago, chances are, unless the book was wildly popular, most bookstores won't have it anymore. But there it is at the library.

Reason #12: Less Distraction.

Many of us who work full-time in a traditional work setting dream of working at home. And I must say the vision holds much appeal! However. As many a home worker has said to me when I see them in the library: home is also filled with beckoning distractions. The laundry, children, reading, the sunny backyard, etc.! At the library there are books, computers, and other accoutrements that make you feel like you should do your research. Well, ok -- there are also thousands of fabulous materials on topics of interest to you totally unrelated to your project. But -- watching all the other patrons studiously involved in their work will soon get you back on track.

So. Do I recommend you say "farewell" to the Web, "later" to the experts, and forever more worship at the feet of your local librarian? No. I make two thirds of my living as a librarian by recommending online resources and experts to students and researchers. But Ye Olde Library is still a worthwhile destination. And they have great coffee, too!

Copyright © 2002 Ellen Metter
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Ellen Metter is the author of Facts in a Flash (Writer's Digest Books,1999) and Cheerfully Childless: The Humor Book for Those Who Hesitate to Procreate (Browser Press, 2001), the latter currently on display on the Writing World Author's Bookshelf. She works as a reference librarian and bibliographer at the University of Colorado at Denver. Metter also does freelance writing and hopes to publish genre fiction before her friends drink whiskey at her wake!


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