Friday, June 11, 2010

adventures in research

I'm currently involved in writing two historical projects, one a full-length stage play and the other an historical novel.  The novel is about the Civil War hero Robert Smalls.  I started the research six or seven years ago, but got involved with various other projects, but now I'm back.  Earlier this spring, I went to Charleston and Beaufort, SC, to scope out some of the associated historical sites, and I've been doing a lot of reading.  I've done a number of historical projects, and the research is one of my favorite tasks.

As I begin the first draft, I thought I'd also try to get some additional context by reading newspapers published in Charleston in 1862.  Luckily, I live near some great libraries (and I'm married to a librarian, who can help me figure out where to find stuff).  The Boston Public Library has a number of very strong collections, and I was pleased to find out online that they have copies of the Charleston Daily Courier on microfilm.  My plan was to spend all day yesterday in the library, reading and feeling very writerly.

So I got myself to the main branch in Copley Square right after it opened, ready to go--lunch packed, notebook prepped, pencils sharpened.  I asked the woman at the microfilm desk for the publication and dates I wanted.  Unfortunately, the film is in storage, and they're in the midst of moving storage facilities, so who knows when it would be available.  She helped me find the next closest source, which happened to be at Harvard.

Now, we all know that Harvard is a big deal.  (They know it, too.)  What I also happened to know is that Harvard's Widener Library is locked up as tight as Fort Knox.  No entry without a Harvard I.D.   I figured I didn't have much of a chance, but the woman at Boston Public Library (BPL) told me that I could get a visiting scholar pass for six visits, with a letter from BPL.  Which she could print and sign for me right there.  Very cool.  Harvard here I come.

So I hopped back on the subway and headed for Cambridge.  It was a grey rainy day, which was perfect for spending inside a library and made Harvard Yard look serious and studious (even though the student are all gone for the summer--it's only tourists and building contractors now).  Widener is an imposing brick building with neo-classical columns that says, "I'm important." I've always wanted to go inside, and here was my big chance.

But you don't just walk in, not even with a letter of recommendation.  First, I had to go to the Library Privileges Office, to get my I.D. card.  Yep, with the letter and my own license, I was able to get a special photo i.d. card (no impostors allowed) that will allow me my six visits.  The guy at the desk was very kind and didn't make me feel like a barbarian invader at all.  (I wisely negelected to mention being an MIT grad.)

My still-warm i.d. got me through security and I was up the stairs to the reference desk, after first stopping in to visit the Gutenberg Bible on repose under glass in the mezzanine.  Okay, so the whole place was full of stone arches and marble and fancy books not to be touched, and I definitely had the feeling of, "wow, nice club.  Guess I'd better make the most of my visit."

At the reference desk, the guy working there happened to be an old friend, whose son went to Cambridge Friends School with my daughter.  He sent me downstairs to the microfilm room.  The cute girl at the microfilm room sent me to circulation.  The guy at circulation sent me to the Phillips Reading Room--since I'm a visiting scholar (sounds fancy, doesn't it), all my requests have to go through the Phillips Reading Room staff.  Anything I get has to remain in the room--no checking stuff out.

The staff there were both helpful and patient (they must get a lot of visitors) as they explained the way the system works.  And they helped me discover that the microfilms I wanted are in storage.  I could request them (and did) but they wouldn't arrive until the following day, after 3pm.  The good news is that they'll hold them for 10 days, so I can go back next week (for one of my five remaining visits).

I'm not allowed in the stacks either, but was able to request a handful of books that the staff retrieved (and will stay in the reading room for 10 days).  For visit #1, I got about one whole hour of work in before having to leave and pick up my son from school, but I still love the feeling of being in a well-laid out library, the intense silence of it all, and working on a project, reading hard-to find books.  Days like that, even with all the running around, are part of what make being a writer fun.

I'll be back there next week for another adventure, and this time will get a lot more work done.

(Here's a photo from the Harvard Gazette of the recently renovated reading room with its high arched glass ceiling--it's a converted courtyard.)

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