The Cost of Research

I couldn’t write the novels I write from where I live if not for the internet. I would have to have access to an academic library, or to the libraries and historical societies in New York, New Orleans, DC, Chicago and more recently, St. Louis and Santa Fe.

When I first began writing Into the WIlderness I was on the faculty of the University of Michigan, which has an outstanding library. And still I had to buy a lot of material for research purposes.  I spent as much as $5,000 a year on  books, old newspapers, journals and maps.

Now it’s rare that I buy an actual book. Last year I think I bought a total of eight books that I couldn’t access in any other way, and about as many old journals that research libraries don’t carry. But I have the internet.  There are what may seem like infinite places to find historical resources — The Library of Congress, for example — which are free for anybody who cares to go rummaging through their attics in the clouds.  That is not to say that I don’t spend money.  I pay for a wide variety things. This is a partial list.

Service NamePurposeAnnual Cost (approx)
Zoteroreference management database, unlimited storage*$100
Evernote Premiumresearch notes organization and storage$96
JSTORacademic publication access$200
Ancestryincludes Newspapers.com and Fold3.com$400

*I have to be able to find the articles I use in research once I have them, thus the need for reference management. I have to be able to find my notes about those resources I’ve found, too.

Ancestry is the resource I depend on most often, because it includes full access to newspapers.com.  I use the census and other databases accessible through Ancestry every day, but I depend most often on the millions of pages of newspapers that were printed on the exact day in the exact place I’m writing about.

If I need to know what a dozen eggs cost in Boston on January 1, 1872, I can find that. Usually exactly, but sometimes within a day or two. 

click for larger image
click for larger image

There are very good maps on Manhattan in the 1880s, but sometimes information on the map itself isn’t enough. I needed to know about a bookstore on Union Square, and I found that info in a newspaper ad.

 

 

When historical, real life people wander into something I’m writing, it gets serious.

click for larger image
click for larger image

For example, I have done a lot of research on two people who practiced medicine in Manhattan in the 1880s. Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi and Dr. Abraham Jacobi, a married couple, both well known to historians of medicine. They both appear now and then in The Gilded Hour, and a little more often in Where the Light Enters, and I have done family trees for them both. Mary interests me because she was the first female physician to challenge the idea that a woman must be maternal first, even in her role as a doctor. The newspaper editorial you see here helped me flesh out her character.

You’re wondering why I would need to do genealogical research on the Jacobis, right?

I know from biographies that they had a son who died as a child.  The idea that I would have either of them popping into my storyline to participate in a light-hearted meal with friends on or near the day their son died? Nope. Can’t take that chance. Thus the need to research their lives.  I blame my training in the social sciences. I just can’t leave that kind of thing to chance. 

I often run across incredibly interesting bits and pieces in the newspapers that make a storyline come to life, and sometimes I post them here, or more likely on  Facebook.  Here’s one I may put to use at some point:

AIMED AT COURT HARPIES.
Lawyers ask for an Italian speaking-officer In the Tombs Police Court.
 
Lawyers who practice in the Court of Special Sessions and the Tombs POlice Court are anxious to have a policeman attached to the Court squad who can speak Italian.
This, they say, has become necessary from the fact that a great many worthess Italians hang around the courts and make a living preying upon their unsophisticated countrymen, making all sorts of promises to influence their cases for a consideration.
John J Delaney recently appointed to the Tombs, has done a good deal towards the abolition of the system but enough of it remains to call for the intervention of the Board. With this object in view a step will be taken within a day or two to lay the matter before the Police Commissioners.

Clipped from 

The Evening World,  26 Jun 1890, Thu,  Second Edition,  Page 1

After the War

On Facebook Suca Johnson pointed me to this website: Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery  where Villanova graduate students in history are collecting newspaper classified ads that appeared after the Civil War.  African American families broken up by slavery  began the search for one another.  Here’s one I found especially moving:

“Abraham Blackburn, Newburgh, NY, finds his mother after writing 256 letters of inquiry,” Newspaper report of family reunification, Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL) (reprinted from the Newburgh Journal), December 8, 1886. link

 

newspapers.com: the agony and the ecstacy

Despite the very high price, I subscribe to Ancestry.com for two reasons: First,  it’s an outstanding resource for a historical novelist, because it gives me access to images of documentation (for example, birth and death certificates; citizenship applications) and to census pages which in turn tell me a lot about the way people lived. If I need to name a character and I’m stuck, Ancestry.com will rescue me. If need a sense of how much a bricklayer earned in 1880, a little digging there will provide that information. 

Before you ask: yes. I do need this kind of information. Historical novelists are the personification of OCD.

Second, a full Ancestry.com subscription gives me access to Newspapers.com.

Not so long ago I had to have access to a university library’s off-site research databases before I could look things up in historical newspapers. Now there are many free online sources, including the Library of Congress. Newspapers.com is not free (and not cheap) but the database is huge, and includes papers from small towns as well as big urban centers, going back in some cases to Revolutionary era publications.  If you are writing about the Civil War, there’s nothing you can’t find through Newspapers.com.  

For my own purposes, I have looked for (and found) reliable information on a wide range of topics including:

  • The materials used in different kinds of clothing, and the price ranges;
  • What vegetables could be put on the table fresh from the market on a given day;
  • What an 1884 obituary  looked like, and who they were about (hint: not poor people);
  • Society wedding details;
  • What was being sold in which stores, for how much;
  • Public opinion on matters as diverse as elevated trains and vaccinations;
  • What a dressmaker did, and what s/he earned;
  • Crimes, small and large, in detail, including robberies, kidnappings, assaults, gang fights, forgery, impersonation, and fraud
  • Arrests for gambling and prostitutions.

Here’s an interesting example of an unusual story that I clipped. I may never use it, but it caught my eye.  From the New-York Tribune, Friday, 30 November 1883. Page 2:

 

As useful and wonderful as Newspapers.com is, it is not flawless. Its usefulness depends on the quality of its search engine, which is iffy and can be terribly frustrating at times. So for example, I used it today because I wanted to get a sense of when the term ‘intern’ began to be used for medical students. I searched ‘intern’ in newspapers published in New York (state) from 1875-1885, and I got 3,613 results. While I didn’t go through every return, I’m fairly sure that ‘intern’ was not used to refer to medical students in a clinical training setting. In fact, only one of the returns had anything to do with medicine. In an 1880 NYT article intern was defined as a “representative of the [medical] staff” in describing a hospital internal dispute.

The problem is that optical character recognition still has some way to go, and the proof is right here. In searching for ‘intern’ Newspapers.com gave me newspaper articles with the following words highlighted:

  • systems
  • Winters
  • interest
  • lantern
  • of
  • tavern
  • interview
  • letters
  • intend
  • William
  • interpose
  • intense
  • interment
  • patent
  • association
  • Eastern
  • internal
  • international

‘Internal’ and ‘international’ make sense, but William, tavern, patent, Eastern?  So I wasted an hour looking through multiple pages with false returns like these. This has happened in the past, and I wrote to customer support at the time outlining what was going on. I never heard back from them. 

Is Newspapers.com worth the expense, given this unfortunate glitch? For me it is, but then not many people worry about the price of a lamb chop in 1884. Or how infants were offered for adoption:

Researching Names for Writers of Historical Fiction

I read a lot of 19th century newspapers for all kinds of reasons, but this clip from the NYT (November 1885) is a great example of one of the ways I find names.

NYT November 1885
NYT November 1885

Here we have Giuseppe Giudici who shot and killed Maggiorini Dagahiero, as well as Ling Chun, Ling Yum, Chun Fong and Lung Mow who are all involved in a perjury case.

central reporter title page
Click for full size. Central Reporter. 1886 on cases heard in September 1885.

A word of warning: even the NYT was really bad at getting the names of immigrants right. Maggiorini Dagahiero strikes me as off, anyway, so I see if I can turn up either half of it elsewhere and find that even mighty Google produces  not a single example of the name Dagahiero beyond the one in this very newspaper article. However, Daghiero does come up — in fact, if you search it will bring up a whole story that is in itself interesting.

Death penalty cases were appealed, I assume, automatically, as they are today. This publication provides both details of the crime and the legal ruling. Because the book is long out of copyright, you can download the whole pdf through Google Books or archive.org (my preference). I can almost guarantee that if you sit down to skim through a volume like this, you will find many stories waiting to be told, the majority of them tragic in one way or another. Some of them bordering on the farcical. 

In this case the details just raise more questions, for me at least. 

I haven’t yet looked into Ling Chun and Ling Yum, but I can predict, based on past experience, that it will be next to impossible to get any details. First, because the crime was minor and didn’t involve bloodshed (newspapers then, as now, subscribed to the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ rule) but also because Asian names were so regularly and extremely mangled.

In case you’d like to know more about the murderous baker (the details of the legal appeal are missing):

Appeal to Death Penalty Case
This is a large graphic. Click to open it on another tab, and be patient.