Wednesday, October 13, 2010

M L Malcolm on Why I Love Doing Research in the Library

Call me old-fashioned. Call me relentless. But don’t call me when I’m doing research; I’ll be in the library.

I write historical fiction. My books are both historically accurate and historically driven; my characters are swept up in the historical events that surround them, and the events help drive the plot.

This takes a lot of research. A lot. A ton. But luckily I’m a history geek, so that’s the fun part—or at least the beginning of the fun.

The process works something like this: I will stumble upon a place, or a historical figure, or a little-known historical fact, and I will (like Curious George) become curious. So I will try to find out more about it. For my first novel, Heart of Lies, the catalyst was a trip my husband and I made to Shanghai. I was fascinated by the fact the for over a hundred years Shanghai was the only place in the civilized world where you could just show up, without a passport or a visa, and start over. For the lords of the opium trade, the White Russians fleeing the Red Army, international industrialists and common criminals, Shanghai provided a world of new beginnings, and the golden age of Shanghai was the 1920s and 30s.

When I learned enough about Shanghai to know that I wanted to set a large part of my novel there, I had to do more detailed research. The information I found on the internet was by and large rather shallow. I found the same stories reposted over and over again, and I was not getting what I wanted. Even worse, I would find a blatantly incorrect fact repeated again and again until it took on an aura of truth that it did not deserve. I wanted eye-witness accounts, detailed descriptions, and personal anecdotes: the kind of factual stew that allows one to pick out the interesting pieces and examine them closely. So I went to the library.

Now as an undergraduate I’d spent a lot of time doing research for my courses and for the debate team, so coming back to a university library felt like coming home. In the library you can find a subject area and browse at your leisure. Shanghai? All in one section, dozens of books, many out of print. Newspapers? Only the really major ones are properly archived on the internet; to read the 1930s editions of North China Daily News I had to use a microfiche machine—sort of like a combination of a film projector and an old-fashioned sewing machine. I was able read items from special collections that included travel diaries from the era. The golden age of Shanghai came alive for me, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I reserved a cubby, gathered sources, and stored them there like a dragon piling treasure into its lair.

And the librarians! God BLESS librarians! They got me access to data bases that included academic journals I never would have discovered on my own. They obtained seemingly unobtainable books from other libraries via interlibrary loan. When I did research at the national archives in Washington D.C. (a wildly exciting experience for a history nerd) the archival librarians showed me how to use the complicated indexes that enabled me to pull and review original government documents with my own two hands. I read letters from actual undercover operatives to their spy masters; declassified diplomatic communications, memos recording interviews with the eye witnesses to important historical events, and examined fabulous period photographs.


But most of all, there’s something about being surrounded by books and documents and original sources that makes me happy, in a way that staring at a computer never will. Maybe I’m subconsciously energized by the voices of all those writers whispering their stories to me from the stacks. Perhaps it’s the shared sense of discovery, the feeling that I am following in the footsteps of other scholars, trying to track down information and pull it together in a new and intriguing way. Or perhaps it’s as simple as this: the library is where my muse lives. She waits for me there.

I do use the internet, especially to find out who the major players were in a particular era at a particular time, or to check dates, or to point me in a new direction. But when it’s time to do the real research, you will always find me in the library

You can find out more about ML Malcolm and her books Heart of Lies, and the upcoming release Heart of Deception at her website


  1. I couldn't agree more! I have found the library to be SO useful - I think that I was one of the few who actually went to the library for something other than just space when working on my thesis. I don't live near my university anymore but I still can access their databases from my laptop and that is useful still sometimes.

  2. I learned a lot about academic journals and primary sources online when I was in college as a history major. This knowledge will really help me as I research my novel. The library is also an indispensable source. What would we do without our libraries?!

  3. I love university libraries! I rarely research on the internet; when I do, I just become so frustrated at all the nonsense. If I am trying to learn about a period or place, you will always find me in the library :)

  4. What a fabulous post - there must be library fans everywhere agreeing with you. I love my university library too and couldn't find out half of what I need without it.