Research tools for writers

This week I’ve posted about tools for organising your work and a few free online tools to use for writing and promotions.

Today, I’ve been thinking about the research tools I use most, and thought I’d pass it on.

Yes, I know. Bloody obvious.
Or is it?
I know only too well that many a time I’m too lazy to get up from my desk to check something in a book that is only a few metres away. Instead I spend half an hour faffing around online and shouting at unknown people on the other side of the world because they are hiding the truth from me.

So, I’m reminding myself as much as anyone else – turn away from the screen and look around you.
I have thousands of books and somehow I can pretty much remember where to find things I need in them. That helps. (Of course, I can’t remember what I did yesterday, or to turn the PVR on to record my favourite show, but I can remember that the quote I needed from Women in Shakespeare is on a left hand page, second paragraph, in the third chapter or so). When I need to look something up, I have a picture of it in my head. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. But it’s much easier to use that spatial/visual skill with objects on shelves than with bookmarks in a browser. I just have to remember to remember.

Everyone’s needs are different, but I will say that I had always been obsessed with owning an old edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica and when I finally bought one (they can be cheap as chips on eBay) it made me very happy – and has done so many times since.


Again, bloody obvious, but libraries do amazing things nowadays and some people don’t realise it. They are also free, with a few exceptions.
I’m a member of several, and that’s very handy because between them they are bound to have something useful even on the most obscure topics. Almost every library now has its catalogue online so you can find out whether they have something you’re after, and you can usually order it, reserve it or even ask for it to be digitised.
If you’re in Australia, you can also use Trove to search for items in a range of libraries at once – elsewhere, try WorldCat.

I’m a member of:
The State Library of Victoria (where I work, and which has magnificent research and heritage collections and thousands of online databases and journal – see below)
Melbourne City Library (terrific lending library, very strong on multimedia and provides e-books and multimedia to download online)
Yarra Plenty Regional Library (my local – not so great for research but good YA section and contemporary fiction)
La Trobe University Library (my university – again, great collection of licensed databases and really quite a good non-fiction collection, including older titles). Students can also get a CAVAL membership which allows you to go browse the shelves and borrow from other institutions’ libraries.

Libraries will get books for you from elsewhere, provide online resources for you to download, chase up obscure titles and show you how to find things you never dreamed of.
Which brings me to …

Databases, online media and ejournals
I had no idea about these until I started working at a library but now I couldn’t live without them.

The story is that magazine and journals all over the world are now digitising back-catalogues and putting new editions online. These are all brought together in different bundles, or databases, by big publishers – some academic, some commercial.
Most libraries will pay subscriptions to the publishers so that members can look up citations, journal articles old and new, research papers, encyclopaedia entries, items in indexes and lists formerly kept on index cards in cabinets on the other side of town or the other side of the world.

They might include, for example, the whole Naxos classical music library, audio books from Jane Austen to JK Rowling, the Oxford dictionary, back copies of every journal from Lancet to Studies in the Novel through a source like JSTOR or databases of facts such as AustLit – a huge treasure chest of information about Australia literature and writers. You log in with your usual library ID.
Immeasurable riches await. I promise.

Google books and scholar
Yes, I Google as much as the next person, but much more valuable to me, in many ways, are Google Books and Google Scholar.
Google Books now comes with the option of buying ebooks for all e-readers except Kindle (hee, hee) but that’s beside the point here. What it does, after much negotiation and angst amongst the writing and publishing communities, is pay for digitisation of (largely) out of copyright titles, mostly from UK and US libraries including some of the biggest in the world.

The wonderful Internet Archive, Gutenberg Project and Open Library have been doing it for years, of course, and I use them a great deal too.

For me the value of these services is direct access to books from centuries past which are difficult to access, especially if there are no copies in local collections. It also means I can keep them and look them up whenever I need them – which I’m unlikely to be able to do with printed copies in rare book collections. So, for example, I can read anything from Histoire anecdotique de l’ancien théâtre en France to Sex and Suits.

In Google Books, there are also titles in which copyright is still in force, so you get a snippet or preview – but this is enough to tell you how many references there are to your subject and whether it’s worth buying or chasing the book elsewhere.

Google Scholar is a different matter altogether: it searches many of those online databases for you and returns not just links to journal articles, but also lets you see how many other authors have cited that article – often a good indication of the original’s impact on the field. You can export the citation details directly into EndNote. And if you are a member of a university library (or something like the State Library) it will recognise you and take you through to the licensed database. Free.

The other Google service I find invaluable is Streetview, and Google Maps with Photos turned on, because I’m often writing about places far away from my desk, and in Streetview I can even peep over the back fence of the convent in Avignon that my main character tried to burn down in 1688 or so.

In Google and all sorts of search engines and databases, you can set up alerts, which email you to tell you when anything new has been published online on your topic. For example, for my PhD work, I have Google alerts set up for names of key historic figures, and topics such as “seventeenth century France”. They can be quite specific and you can adjust them if they are sending you nonsense. In the journal databases, you can be alerted when new editions of particular titles are posted online.
The information comes to you. That has to be a good thing.

Archives and digital collections

If you’re doing historical research, you’re probably already using online archives. How many records are available online, and how user-friendly they are, differs from place to place, and archives all over the world have their work cut out for them getting stuff available fast enough to meet demand.

Again, your library subscription might provide you with access to archival material like births, deaths and marriages from countries around the world (eg through, but repositories such as the UK Archives and Archives de France are free, unbeatable sources of historical data.

I use British History Online an awful lot – here you can read the debates in Parliament during the Civil War or read the Venetian Ambassador’s private papers. Warning: once you go in there, you may never come out.

And don’t forget the many small local historical societies and archives where you can find friendly volunteers desperate to help you out.

I use images to research what people wore, ate, sat on, and dreamed about in centuries past. So if I know a certain artist (eg Vermeer) has captured it perfectly, I’ll seek out the galleries and museums with strong collections of either relevant artworks or items such as clothing or weapons and check if they have digital versions.

I find search engines don’t pick up collection images so easily. Much better to go to one of the central organising services like Trove. Europeana is also a wonderful way into the thousands of collections in Europe – it includes documents from the archives and is always in English.

And don’t forget Flickr, especially for images of places and buildings.

Next episode: where and how to search online…