Recently my son Benjamin has started using a phrase quite often: DIY: Do It Yourself. DIY therapy; DIY career planning; DIY parenting (I hope that was a joke).
Do It Yourself.
We grown-ups know all about DIY. We've been doing stuff for ourselves for years. Benjamin is 21, on that cusp of adulthood when this revelation is huge. He knows he has a lot to get done, and much of it he has to do himself. He's precocious, I think. I got there at about 30. Maybe.
But there is another side to this: you reach another level of maturity when you realize you can't do it all yourself. You need help.
I usually am very good at reaching out and asking for help. But sometimes when I am in the throes of a project, and can't see the forest for the trees, I don't remember to ask for help. I forget that research is not completely DIY. There are people out there who are ready, willing, and able to help. Those people are called librarians.
Insert photo of me here, bowing down to all research librarians.
Years ago I wrote a book for Scholastic called The New York Public Library Kid's Guide to Research (retitled in paperback just as The Kid's Guide to Research). It was not my idea; an editor came to me with it, and at first I said no because it sounded like homework. Besides, I didn't know all there was to know about research; I would have to research research. It was that realization, of course, that made me say yes to the book. To do the book I had to talk to librarians, lots of librarians, which made it a joy to work on. I had the great pleasure of talking to librarians from all over the country, and I got tips from them that I put in the book and still use all the time. I also got to know my local librarians really well, and there's nothing better than having your local research librarians be your friends. (This was when I lived in Pennsylvania.)
Of course the book is no longer in print because I wrote it just as the internet was beginning to be widely used. (Who knew?!) But it did have a good long life and it is still in school libraries and public libraries (may The God of Librarians keep the libraries open, please).
But the point is that I learned that librarians have tricks. All kinds of TRICKS. And those tricks are the kinds of things that can unlock sources, can take us down paths we wouldn't have known even existed. Some of them are general tricks but a lot of them are specifically applied to certain situations. Which is why we need the librarians to guide us.
I am beginning (again) my new non-fiction book. It is a researcher's dream and also, I am finding out, a researcher's nightmare. I mean challenge. I am researching someone who lived a long time ago, and she was not famous and although there was a lot written about her contemporaneously, much of it was, as was typical of the time, sort of "surfacey" and "puffy."
I need real, gritty details, and I need to get into some files that may or may not even exist. If I can't get into those files (my husband says I'm not allowed to go on dates with any policemen), or if they don't exist (I don't believe that, not for a minute), I am going to have to get my information another way.
I need a way in (or probably many ways in) and I am stymied. I was whining to a writer friend of mine (yes, we writers do whine occasionally--insert raucous laughter from other writers here) and she said, "You know there are people out there who want to help you. Librarians who live for this kind of research challenge." Hello. I knew that. I just forgot. Too much DIY think.
So... as I write this, I am preparing for my first appointment with a librarian at the Columbia Journalism School, where my husband teaches. I am sure she will be able to teach me some things I don't know. But this is just the beginning. I wonder if I should send out a warning: Librarians, BEWARE.
I'm coming. I need help.