Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Internet--A Researcher's Friend

When I do school visits and talk about how I research and write my books, inevitably the conversation turns to Internet research. Kids want to know if I use the Internet. I usually turn the question around on them. How do you think I use the Internet? Google, they say. That’s a search engine, I tell them. In what way do you think I use the search engine? Through a series of questions that usually allow me to steer them away from Wikipedia and do a basic how-to-use-the-Internet safely and productively, we get there. My most recent school visit was right around the time I had been dazzled by solving a problem that would have been a monumental task pre-Internet.

I was going over final art for my forthcoming picture book about Elizabeth Blackwell and there was one detail in one of Marjorie Priceman’s pieces that I wanted to make sure we had gotten right. It was an illustration of her graduation and she was not wearing her bonnet. I needed to quickly double-check and make sure we hadn’t missed this detail and that her bare head was a-ok, so I went online and in TWO minutes I found a primary source document proving that she was not wearing her bonnet that day. All was well! That could have taken weeks pre-Internet.

The Internet has become an invaluable tool for the research process in my books in many ways. The ability to locate experts in various fields and share information is mind-boggling. I’ll never forget the first time I realized that this was not just a tool that could make certain things easier, it was a tool that could make certain things possible! At the time, I was charged with writing a wildlife series in which the film for the original books was published in China. Translation: the film we were working with consisted of complete photographic layouts of 32 page books, with Chinese text that we were going to ignore. Instead, my challenge was to properly identify the contents of the photographs, figure out the theme of each spread, and write new text to go with it. Given my wildlife and science education background, this was do-able. EXCEPT when I got to a book about alligators and crocodiles. These photos all looked alike to me. What to do? I got on the Internet and began to search for the world experts on alligators and crocs. And I found one. There was a scientist in Darwin, Australia who specialized in Crocodilians—otherwise known as alligators, crocodiles, and caimans. (Who knew?) He was happy to identify the photos for me. So I scanned all of the spreads and emailed them to him. One by one, he told me exactly what I was looking at and I was able to write the text. Pre-Internet—not really possible. How would I even begun to have found him??

In my forthcoming book, Courage Has No Color, the photo research was painstakingly slow. It is a story about WWII veterans and the images of them were few to begin with and fewer to survive the decades. I don’t know if I could have found most of what I did without the Internet. In some instances, it was tracking down small military archives; in others, it was a matter of being a detective and finding obscure phone numbers of distant relatives. Zabasearch came in handy!

The bulk of my research in general is done sans Internet with the usual suspects—library materials, documentaries, oral histories, interviews, etc.. But this ever-expanding body of material available by researching on line is staggering and has opened up new avenues of discovery. Thanks, Al Gore! ;-)


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Hear, Hear! I'm working in the 18th century right now, and the numbers of documents - in manuscript and printed form - that are available online astonishes me. Another book I'm working on re the 20th century will include photos from the 1920s that were buried in a box until recently. Now they are on Flickr. Lots of people diss Wiki, but I don't. I find it a great place to look for further sources. Like the web itself, some information is suspect, but much is solid. And Wiki images have been very useful.

Mary said...

Yes! Tanya, thanks so much for mentioning Zabasearch. I was still diddling around with white pages, obits & trying to find people.
The internet is growing more amazing by the day for research. For the WWII book I am working on, new photos keep popping up all the time. I'm amazed at how much more info there is now than three years ago when I started the research. Makes a historian's job so much easier.