Back to school: A wealth of information may be as close as your nearest campus
Published: October 5, 2001
|Writers in search of ideas and interviews can find no better place than the nearest college or university, which can offer a surprisingly rich source of experts, statistics and history. Over the years, I have visited more than 15 college libraries throughout the country and interviewed more than 100 academic sources for a range of assignments, and I never fail to be amazed at the treasure trove of information available on campuses both large and small.|
More and more of those campuses are striving to serve the community at large, particularly writers. "Colleges are eager to deliver their expertise and information to the world," says Laura Forman, director of public relations and online communications for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education in Washington.
Local college libraries, documents and faculty have often enriched my own writing. While working as a reporter in Sitka, Alaska, I relied on Sheldon Jackson College's Stratton Library for historical accounts to accompany my news articles about Native American and local affairs. I also studied the college's collection of Alaska Native art to lend authentic, vivid descriptions for my mystery novel, ]Alaska Gray. Later, professors in business and policy programs generously offered comments and analysis for my articles about technology, environment, real estate and education for business journals in Boston and Hartford, Conn.
More often than not, my interviews also often became a source of ideas for future articles. For example, an interview with the director of the Photonics Research Center at the University of Connecticut resulted in an article about the emerging photonics industry (which deals with harnessing and using light and other forms of radiant energy), as well as stories about new software products and the state's approach to attracting new businesses.
So, colleges are the starting point for many new ideas—ideas that writers can translate into articles, essays, short stories or novels. Some school Web sites such as Pennsylvania State University's www.psu.edu even invite writers to subscribe to free e-mail news services—daily updates on faculty research and inventions, student accomplishments, concerts and events. Penn State also offers specific e-mail updates on sports and technology.
Let's take a brief tour around campus to get an idea of the kinds of resources an enterprising writer might find:
|Archives and manuscripts|
Colleges have become a favorite storage place for wonderful old manuscripts of all types—letters, diaries, music scores and collections of artifacts.
Alert readers can make new discoveries there. While researching a book about philanthropist Paul Mellon for Yale University, I made a point of checking the files of the Yale presidents. A page-by-page search uncovered correspondence written in Mellon's own hand. Nothing quite matches the awe of handling the soft, old paper of a handwritten letter that provides clues to a person's motivation.
Some libraries require that writers contact them in advance. "Or, you can really just show up," explains Christa Sammons, curator of German literature, who has worked at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library since 1968. Beinecke is renowned for its collections of American literature, the American West, the Harlem Renaissance and more. Like most rare book collections, Beinecke has a strict registration process requiring two forms of identification.
Writers should study the regulations carefully. Many collections prohibit pens or notebooks and insist on providing all writing implements and paper, although laptops typically are allowed. No personal belongings are allowed in the reading area, and writers may have to use a locker. Sammons recalls early in her career having to track down the eminent poet/novelist Robert Penn Warren and ask for his umbrella. "He was a lovely man," she recalls. "He understood that the strict rules protect the collections."
Writers need not be experienced to examine the collections. "We really don't make a judgment," Sammons explains. "Some people simply want to explore out of personal interest."
Be prepared to work in close quarters. Reading rooms in archives often have low light to protect the old paper and cloth. Also, writers need to target their search; unlike a library, archive collections are less conducive to browsing. "Do your homework," Sammons suggests, adding that some background reading beforehand can save time. The value of any archive rests in the index and knowing the correct combination of words to use for searching. But librarians can assist in providing clues. Sammons offers advice to writers before making any campus visit: "Plan on everything taking longer than you think. The archives are fascinating and you will find the unexpected."
Many authors visit galleries, museums and photo archives to research historical periods, according to Peter B. Tirrell, past president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries and associate director for the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman.
"We have had script writers for films and TV series in our museum who have used the galleries for inspiration," he notes. Likewise, authors such as novelist Tony Hillerman also frequent the gallery and archives.
By mandate, libraries that are federal depositories for government documents are open to the public, and more than half of those 1,350 libraries—at least one for every congressional district—are located on college campuses.
These collections include testimony from congressional hearings and floor debates; the text of public laws and U.S. Supreme Court decisions; and documents, publications and statistics from major agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau. By checking www.access.gpo.gov, writers can locate the nearest depository and research the holdings.
Need to know how many farmers are in your state or county? How many people lack health insurance? Or how many people subscribe to cellular telephones, cable television or newspapers? Curious about space needs in juvenile detention facilities or government advice to parents for keeping children safe? The government lists new publications on an array of topics each week.
Libraries have prepared a variety of helpful indexes. The University of Michigan, for example, provides indexes on documents in the news or statistics for dozens of topics, from abortion and accidents to wild-life and the World Bank, at www.lib.umich.edu/libhome/documents.center/index.html.
Regional depositories, at least one in every state, offer a full collection of government documents, while others, like Yale, are selective sites. For example, Yale selects about 75 percent of what the federal government distributes annually, but smaller institutions can select smaller samples and may not retain documents beyond the required five years. Yale has records that date back to the 19th century. "If it were not for microfiche, we would have run out of room a long time ago," notes Sandra Peterson, government information librarian with Yale's Mudd Library.
Libraries can also be depositories for other international collections. Yale, for example, is a depository site for the United Nations, Canada and the European Union.
|Fellowships for writers|
Colleges are also home to many rewarding and educational fellowship programs for writers. For example, Columbia University's MBA program and Yale Law School each offer competitive fellowships that allow writers to study one academic year on campus. Beinecke has a visiting fellows program, open to scholars and writers who want to work on long-term projects. One source of fellowships for journalists is www.newswise.com.
|Centers and foundations|
"No matter how unusual the topic, some university has some research going on in that area," explains Gary McKillips, director of communications and external affairs with the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University, and chairman of the Counselors to Higher Education with the Public Relations Society of America. For example, writers can turn to Robinson College's eCommerce Institute, the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture, Northeastern University's Marine Science Center and the University of Minnesota's Obesity Center.
Like academic researchers, the most successful writers become curious about odd topics and can sift through the academic jargon. The Forensic Anthropology Center in Knoxville, Tenn., operated in relative anonymity until novelist Patricia Cornwell made it the subject of her fifth novel, The Body Farm. The university readily cooperated with Cornwell on her study of body decomposition because of her reputation for technical accuracy.
Such centers produce pamphlets, newsletters and other documents and can also be a source of assignments for freelancers.
The obvious starting place on any campus is the library. In addition to specialized books and periodicals, reference librarians can direct writers to the most suitable resources, including indexes, publications, films, documents, collections, maps and more. More important, a librarian can offer fast answers about the university's policies and regulations regarding the academic resources.
Many libraries welcome the public at large but expect guests to introduce themselves. Some require guests to register. At others, visitors can obtain a card with borrowing privileges, sometimes for a fee. Georgia State University, for example, allows the public to enter its libraries and use its services, but the books must remain on-site.
Usually, the library will have a specialized index that describes a wide range of materials. This is a good starting point for researchers. Typically, the public cannot access university library indexes online without passwords, but can readily use them at the library.
"We certainly can provide a lot of help and get people started," Peterson says. "But people are expected to do their own research." #