From the Desk of a Librarian: A Writer’s Guide to Research

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I love research. There, I said it. I can never take it back now because the Internet is forever, like memories of a bad boyfriend or your grandmother’s recipe for banana bread. As someone who works in both the English and Library worlds, I have a strong interest in making sure people understand their rights to access information, where information is located, and how to acquire the information they want. As much as I love classic literature and the old-fashioned ideal of a tortured, talented writer sitting alone in a garrett surrounded by piles of typed or handwritten sheets, I’m glad my days of romanticizing that lifestyle are over. For as much as I love solitary afternoons staring into the pine trees, I don’t know if I could ever fully give up the amazing amount of access to information we have these days.

I am not alone in this. Almost everyone is plugged into something. It’s never been easier to get the information you want (and a ton of information you never wanted). From simple internet searches (try “time-lapse video of the Northern Lights” in Google) to libraries with massive print and digital collections, to archives charged with preserving the history of our world, the information is there for the taking, for the asking, and doing so has never been easier.

I was hoping to find an elegant slogan to accompany my blog posts, something along the lines of Michael Pollan’s oft-quoted, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Alas, it appears that my advice will not be as fun to quote and simply boils down to this: “Read everything. As much as you can. Print and digital. Don’t forget real life.” (My former college professors rejoice: We got her!) As I’m sure the majority of you have the “real life” part down, my time here at the MQR Blog will be spent sharing resources I’ve been collecting for myself for years; that said, I wish more of us would share our reading lists with each other. Wouldn’t that be a great thing to get handed at AWP rather than a keychain? (Yes, I’m already making notes for my next AWP visit). Today I want to focus on some particular resources I’ve found helpful for my work that others have recommended to me. (If you’re wondering where the list of scientific texts are, then you’ll just have to wait a little bit. Write something while you wait.)


Reference Books:

I highly recommend Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions. This one I can’t take credit for, and unfortunately I don’t remember who to give credit to. I read a book of poetry a few years ago and the poet used a quotation from this text to introduce their poem. (I truly wish I could remember who it was. Maybe they’ll reveal themselves?) This book is exactly what the title suggests and I have snagged many a good idea from its pages and often give it as a gift to writer pals. (Oxford University Press also has a great dictionary of superstitions.) The Dictionary of Poetic Terms and A Handbook to Literature are great references for forms, terminology, and historical information about literature. Similarly, the text What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew provides information pertinent to the era and explains things like traditions and card games for the now-clueless modern reader; it also allows one to read Victorian classics smartly. The Academy of American Poets website also has a small open-source collection of poetic forms that you can access. I’ve also found that dictionaries and other reference books are great to keep around. When I really want to write a poem but can’t seem to get started I pull one of these off my shelf and flip around until I find something I can’t live without.

Anthologies and Collections:

There’s a lot to be said for anthologies and collections. You get a lot of different writers and writing styles in one tome, and they come in all sizes, with all manner of themes. If you love to go to readings but don’t have access to many in your area, the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s website has you covered. Their voca project focuses on digitizing their readings to make them available for anyone to watch. I’ve spent many an hour doing dishes and listening to CAConrad read from The Book of Frank.


The reference textbook The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language is full of awesome facts. I bought it for a sociolinguistics class and never gave it up afterwards. I also recommend Deborah Tannen’s Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk among Friends. Linguistics textbooks are incredibly satisfying bridges between the creative side of the English language and the scientific side, and they often provide great writing prompts. Similarly, there are interesting business writing textbooks that may provide rules you can apply to your poetry just for fun. Poetry and business writing are not as different as some might think; both rely on specificity and conciseness of language. Don’t forget to check out grammar textbooks, too, particularly if sentence diagramming is involved. (Sentence diagramming is a work of art.) Lastly, consider other language textbooks. Pick up a book on learning Chinese, or snag your kid’s fourth-grade English textbook when he comes home from school. There’s also plenty available online through open-source means–a few summers ago I read an Athabascan grammar book available for free online.


For the fiscally-challenged writer there are countless options to acquire the aforementioned texts in print mediums: haunt Internet sites like Craigslist, or the seller listings on Amazon. Try thrift stores and used book stores in college towns after classes have ended. Many students just drop their books there if they don’t need them and can’t find a buyer. Alternately, if you want all of the books but don’t have the scratch, get a group of like-minded writer friends to pool money for a small library. Creating an understanding and sharing system with good friends can be a fiscally responsible way to collect resources without having to spend a lot of money or be responsible for all of the storage. Besides that, it may push you to do more writing when your friend comes to get that Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers (I recently learned about this book through a fruitful Google search and have a copy coming through interlibrary loan). And never ever forget the library. Most libraries have an interlibrary loan option if they don’t have the exact book you want, and readers can request it to be sent from the closest library that has the title.

Finally, if you haven’t found anything here that interests you yet, don’t worry. We have a long time to spend in the world of resources together: I’ll be back.


Photo: Sainte-Geneviève library in Paris, France. Image courtesy of Laif/Camera Press.

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