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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.

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Helpful tips for researching at national institutions

Focus your questions

Know what you want. The better the information you provide, the more helpful the staff can be in accessing relevant information. “It’s not helpful to say ‘I’m interested in Leonardo da Vinci,’” says Mattie M. Schloetzer, program administrator for internships and fellowships at the National Gallery of Art. “You may be missing something if you let the librarian interpret the question for you. You’ll get more targeted information if you focus the question, such as ‘Can you direct me to information about Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of bridges?’”


Ask about vertical files

Many institutions have “vertical files” – or published documents of fewer than 50 pages – that aren’t in the catalog. These items can be news clippings, pamphlets, invitations, and other materials received or collected by staff. Librarian and author Marcie Flinchum Atkins says, “Sometimes it’s worth asking: Do you have vertical files? What do you have vertical files on?”

If you live in the area, you typically have to make an appointment with a reference librarian and view the material onsite. If you’re not local, there’s usually an email exchange or a series of phone calls about the contents. “The librarian will check the files for the researcher,” says Schloetzer. “If the request is not too much, the material can be scanned and emailed to the researcher.”



Leverage technology

In addition to researching online, use technology to help you. Sign up for newsletters and blogs at the institutions. Set Google alerts for new information.

Even if you research onsite, having the right technology is essential. Some places, like the Library of Congress, have book-to-net machines so you can upload a book to a flash drive. Many places have photocopy machines that cost money, but you might be able to scan for free. “If I need something for my own resource, I use TurboScan to scan documents and turn them into PDF files,” says Atkins. “You may have to ask before you scan something, and oftentimes you can’t use flash photography, but it’s free and easy. If you need something reproducible, don’t do it on your phone.”


Call ahead

Know what the guidelines are for the visit and ask about fees. For example, at the National Archives, there are restrictions on what personal belongings you can have in the research room.


You also want to ensure what you want is there, and the repository is prepared. Sometimes if you’re looking for something specific, the staff might need time to get it from an offsite area. “Typically, it requires a follow-up email or call: Yes, they have the records, and yes, they’re accessible,” says Rachel K. Reilly, senior research associate for Taylor Research Group. “Don’t just show up.”


Jennifer L. Blanck is a freelance writer whose writing has recently appeared in, Toastmaster, Whole Grain, and Wine Tourism Management and Marketing. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @JLBlanck.