Ask a librarian, and then listen

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Harper Library, University of Chicago
  • Richie D.
  • Harper Library, University of Chicago
For the last five months I've been shoulder-deep in a research project that threatens to stretch on past the new year. The subject matter isn't important, but the process is, because it's reminded me how much I love digging for information. When I told a colleague at the Tribune what I was up to, he remarked, "I envy you the research," and I expect a lot of newspaper people would share that sentiment. Much of daily journalism (including this very blog post) is just people blowing it out their ass. But when I finally get busy with the writing phase of the project, I'm going to have a mountain of hard information at my disposal, stuff that most people don't know about because none of it is available online.

What's that you say? I thought all human knowledge had been stored in servers around the globe, accessible by a few keystrokes. On Wikipedia there's a separate page for every Beatles song ever recorded (even "Old Brown Shoe"). But no—in archives around the world lie vast repositories of information printed in ink on rustling onionskin, and images recorded on wrinkled photographic paper. As they say in the south, you can't get there from here—you have to find a car, drive out to the research facility, pull on some white cotton gloves, and page through the stuff yourself. No matter how detailed the library's finding aid (a document that lists everything in a particular collection), you may need to leaf through page after page to find whatever you're after. But make sure you're sitting down, because when you find it, the rush can take your head off.

I'm lucky in this regard because librarians run in my family. My sister, my sister-in-law, my niece, and my ex-wife all have library science degrees, which comes in handy for a guy who's still mad that they stopped using the Dewey Decimal System. But as I've discovered in my research, librarians are naturally disposed to offer help. Again and again I've been surprised by the lengths to which they'll go to find whatever it is you're after, even when you're dealing with them long-distance by phone or e-mail. I suspect this is partly because their work is so unappreciated, and most people are so ignorant of the valuable physical materials they protect and provide to the public.

This same ignorance goes on unchecked—you can see it in the dramatic budget cuts sustained last year by the Chicago Public Library, which many people seem to think of now as a big building for computers with Internet access. I saw it firsthand a few years ago when the Reader donated several big filing cabinets full of movie stills, collected over nearly 40 years, to the CPL, on the theory that I could find whatever images I needed online. (I can, but the resolution is usually too poor to publish them in print.) So I'm here to tell you once and for all: you can't get there from here.

Read more from Foraging Week, this week's Variations on a Theme:

"Mix of the day: Jon Brooks's Summer Triangles," by Tal Rosenberg
"Dumpster diving," by Julia Thiel
"The primitive urge to hunt is what drives us to art fairs," by Deanna Isaacs
"Mushroom hunting with Iliana Regan," by Julia Thiel
"Forage every stream," by Michael Miner

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