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How to take your writing research to the next level

From the Library of Congress to the Smithsonian Institution, national research resources abound for the curious writer. Here’s how to use them.

Research is fundamental for nonfiction writing, but it’s also important for fiction – from anchoring a story accurately in a time period to providing a realistic or even true-to-life setting. National organizations like the Library of Congress, National Archives, and Smithsonian Institution are treasure troves for writers. They offer millions of items in their collections – in some cases, information you won’t find anywhere else – and, best of all, most can be accessed for free.

Contrary to what some may believe, you don’t have to live in the Washington, D.C., area to access the resources of these institutions. While not all materials are digitized, a substantial portion of what they offer can be found online. Some other organizations have facilities throughout the United States and even beyond.

The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is part of the U.S. legislative branch. Just as its name implies, it serves as Congress’s library. But it also bills itself as the world’s largest library, with a vision that “all Americans are connected to the Library of Congress.”

The Library employs 3,000 staff and has more than 168 million items in its collections, including approximately 24.6 million cataloged books in its classification system. Other printed materials found in its “nonclassified print collections” include such things as incunabula (books printed before 1501), monographs, music, newspapers, pamphlets, and technical reports.

The bulk of its holdings – more than 128 million items – can be found in its “nonclassified (special) collections.” This includes audio materials, maps, microforms, visual materials, and more. For example, the collection holds around 15 million photographs alone, from shots of women during the Civil War and 20th-century African-American activists to images depicting historic covered bridges and Frank Lloyd Wright buildings to several centuries’ worth of cartoon drawings dating back to the late 1700s. Audio materials range from recordings documenting North American English dialects to oral histories of former slaves. There are also 900 free databases you can access anywhere. Some subscription-based databases that have been purchased by the Library can only be accessed onsite.

If all that seems intimidating, don’t worry: The website offers a “Researchers” section that outlines the Library’s collections and research tools and serves as a starting place. In fact, all the specific collections’ homepages contain research guides.

It’s good to have patience and learn how to navigate the Library’s pages, but there are also librarians ready to help. “Engage with us right away,” recommends Nanette Gibbs, Library of Congress business reference and research specialist. “Tell us what you’re working on.”

There’s an “Ask a Librarian” button on the Researchers page. Gibbs also notes many people miss an important item on the subject pages – a telephone number for the reference desk. “You can pick up the phone and call,” she says. “Ask to speak to the person who is most knowledgeable about the subject you’re researching, and we will talk to you. We’re trained in subject analysis.”

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Gibbs encourages writers to think across curriculum areas when researching because the subject might have relevance elsewhere. She emphasizes that Google doesn’t offer results based on subject analysis the way a trained librarian can. Susan Wroble, a nonfiction writer for adults and children who lives in Denver, Colorado, agrees. She stumbled upon some Library of Congress resources online after spending night after night conducting Google searches for a writing assignment on Margaret Campbell, an advocate for women’s suffrage in the 1800s. “Moving forward, I will make the Library of Congress an earlier, deliberate search,” Wroble says. “It was really my best source.”

Through the Library, Wroble found handwritten reports by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell about Campbell. “Here were copies of actual documents written by some of the most influential people in the suffrage movement,” says Wroble. “It was exciting to see the handwritten pages. It makes it more real and takes you back further than had it been transcribed and typed out.”

The Library had information on Campbell that Wroble couldn’t find anywhere else. “The fact that the Library of Congress made so much of this available online is such a benefit to any writer who can’t afford to travel across the country,” she says.

Gibbs does caution that the Library doesn’t have every book ever published. “Some people are really upset that we don’t,” she says. “But we should have everything ever copyrighted. If there’s something we don’t have here that we should, it means something – like history or war – got in the way.” One exception relates to medicine – a subject the Library no longer collects in large quantities because there’s a U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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The Library of Congress has some unexpected items, like the smallest book ever printed (Old King Cole), and presidential papers from the time before there were presidential libraries. “We also have some odd things, like the contents of [President] Lincoln’s pockets the night he was shot,” says Gibbs.

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