For a writer, especially a non-fiction writer, a library is an almost-sacred place. Yes, the Internet has made researching at home or on the go much easier, but we can find some books and other important resources only in a library. And on a recent trip back east to visit friends and family, I did research not at just any library, but Yale’s Sterling Library.
I had spent many hours there several years before, when I lived just outside of New Haven. A yearly fee (a hefty yearly fee…) gave me access to the stacks and borrowing privileges. While on campus, I also had the chance to explore the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, an experience I recounted in a previous blog. Beinecke overwhelmed, of course, with its presentation of iconic texts throughout history. And while research goes on there, Sterling is a more nuts-and-bolts kind of place.
On the recent trip, I spent my time at Sterling in the basement in front of a relic of library research, a microfilm machine. As the librarian gave me a quick overview of how theirs worked, I remembered the many hours I had spent in from of them years before (history majors tend to do that, at least in those ancient days). I studied mid-19th century editions of the Hartford Courant to learn about Know Nothing rule in my home state. I poured over documents of all kinds to gather evidence of anti-Italian immigrant feelings. More recently, I loaded up the spools to research a book on famous crimes of Minnesota (enough recounting of macabre dealings to last a lifetime there). At times, ads and articles totally irrelevant to my search dragged my attention from the subject at hand; just a pre-digital version of today’s following link upon link away from the page your reading on the Web, I suppose.
Those pleasant distractions came up again on my recent trip, as I dug for information on Timothy Webster, a Union spy hung for his activities in the South. The Webster research is for a proposal, and I might end up never writing about his service as a double agent during the early days of the Civil War. But the time in front of the microfilm reader gave me a chance to learn more about the plot to assassinate Lincoln before his 1861 inauguration, and of the women who worked as agents alongside Webster for Allan Pinkerton, he of the detective agency, who ran some of the Union’s first efforts at espionage and counterespionage during the war. It all made for fascinating reading. And as usual when I’m in a library, I felt at home.