Whether you are getting started on a research project or are stuck on a current one, I hope some of these research resources will be helpful. This list is excerpted from a talk I gave at the SCBWI Iowa/Minnesota Nonfiction Day in September 2021.
books that touch on the African American experience mention the New York Public
Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black
Culture in their acknowledgements. How do you find
holdings related to a specific group of people? Try some of these directories:
Catalogs, including trade catalogs
One of my favorite Christmas presents last year was a facsimile of the 1945 Sears Christmas Book. I love poring over the pages, examining clothing styles, the toys advertised for girls vs. boys, even the marketing language. You may be able to pick up catalogs issued by major retailers at antique stores or on eBay. Don’t overlook trade catalogs, though. These gems can describe football equipment from the 1920s, cars driven in a certain year, or the typewriter model used by a famous author. The Hagley Library is one source of trade catalogs.
Looking for an image of the original Betty Crocker for a book about cooking? Want to learn more about stagecoach robberies? Try the General Mills or Wells Fargo corporate archives. Little-known corporate archives offer manuscript collections, photographs, advertising material, annual reports, trade catalogs, and much more. Rules vary about public access; sometimes permission must be requested from the marketing department. In other words, you’re likely to get further if you are writing about the company in a favorable light or exploring a wider topic, such as nineteenth century farming. Even if the facility is closed to the public, don’t be afraid to email or call to see if someone will answer basic inquiries.
Lesser-known Government Libraries
Everyone knows about the National Archives in Washington, D.C., but the National Archives and Records Administration also operates several regional branches nationwide. For example, the Seattle location houses many Chinese Exclusion Act case files.
Beyond the National Archives, many federal agencies—and likely state and city agencies—operate a library or store potential reference materials dedicated to their missions. When I was writing my book about lighthouses, I conducted research at the Coast Guard Historian’s Office, which featured an extensive collection of books about lighthouses, as well as clipping files containing newspaper articles, press releases, and photos. Another example? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates libraries around the country and a larger facility in Washington, D.C.
Living History Museums
The most famous living history museum in the United States is Colonial Williamsburg, but you can find them all over. Visit one in-person to learn about regional architecture, period clothing styles, transportation methods, and more. Some offer classes that provide an in-depth look at an industry or craft. (True story: my husband and I once took a blacksmithing class at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.) Some of the larger ones operate research libraries; the one at Sturbridge boasts account books, diaries, friendship albums, ledgers and more. Living history museums are also great places to find experts specializing in food, apparel, customs of a certain region or ethnic group, or historic trades/industries. The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums offers an online directory of museums in North America.
people think of dog shows and purebred pooches when they think about the American Kennel Club. I
don’t. Instead, I relish the time I spent in the organization’s magnificent library and archives in
Manhattan. To be sure, most organizations don’t have expansive research
facilities open to the public. But even the smallest ones may put out a
publication with helpful information, offer industry statistics (is daily milk
consumption in the U.S. increasing or decreasing?) or be able to connect you to
an industry expert or historian. Use this directory of associations; it
allows you to sort by topic or location.
National Register of Historic Places data base
more about the places (and the people and events behind them) listed in the National
Expand your perception and definition of newspapers. Specialty newspapers can provide unique perspectives and details you won’t find other places. These include ethnic newspapers, labor newspapers, military newspapers, and sports publications. Before the Sporting News went digital, I visited its office in the St. Louis area, where I obtained detailed articles about specific baseball games and traditions. (Sporting News is now available from Paper of record.)
Colleges and secondary schools publish newspapers that may be helpful for learning about a person, a town, a time period, a specific event, or an issue, such as voting rights. Some college newspapers have been digitized; check the library’s special collections/university archives tab on the library’s web site.
Even in unusual circumstances, people have published newspapers to connect their communities. For example, the Library of Congress holds newspapers from Japanese-American internment camps. Civilian Conservation Corps camps also put out newspapers. (Try checking a state library or state historical society where the camp was located.)
A quick note about online data bases: Numerous sites offer online access to newspaper articles (www.newspapers.com, www.newspaperarchive.com, etc.). You may be able to access some of them at your public library or by signing up for a free trial. The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America site also provides access to many newspapers. Wondering where to find a specific newspaper? Check out this comprehensive directory.
Enjoy the hunt!
Give It a Try
Use one of the resources listed, such as the National Register data base, to look for additional information—or a potential expert or resource—that will help with a work in progress.
About the Author
Katherine House is the author of two nonfiction books for young readers published by Chicago Review Press: Lighthouses for Kids: History, Science, and Lore with 21 Activities and The White House for Kids: A History of a Home, Office, and National Symbol with 21 Activities, which was named an NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book. A native of the Washington, D.C., area, she lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her family.