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Research Your Way To Publication Through
Your Local Library

by Cindy LaPenna

Before writers write, they do research. Thereís just no way around it.

Fortunately, most writers are curious types who enjoy scouring through books or sifting through databases to find the answers theyíre seeking. I know more than one writer, myself included, who started on the path to writing, in part because they like doing research almost as much as they love the written word.

Even in this age of electronic information, libraries are still a writerís best friend when it comes to research. Even so, the research process can be daunting for many, particularly if youíre a beginner. Where do you find information on a specific topic? Where can you find experts to quote?

Where do you begin?

While most libraries have several different departments, all research is done through the Reference Department. Visit your local library, and become familiar with everything they have to offer by talking with the Reference Librarian. Even if your library is a small one, donít overlook this step, because you feel uncomfortable about your lack of knowledge, or assume you can learn the inside workings on your own. Maybe you can, but not everything is readily visible to the visitor and what you see may not be what you think. The librarian is there to help you, and she is trained to assist and inform you.

Most libraries today are part of bigger systems that cooperate with one another by lending a variety of materials such as books, books-on-tape, CDs, videos, magazines and microfilm. If your library doesnít own what youíre looking for, chances are they can get it for you through someone else in relatively short periods of time, ranging from a few hours for faxed information to a week or two for most everything else.

Approach the reference librarian, (usually the smiling person behind the desk) and explain the reason for your visit. You can ask general questions if you are just curious about the libraryís collection, ("Iím looking for books about writing") but itís almost always better to be as specific as possible.

Try using the following approach:

"Iím a freelance writer who needs information on how to write childrenís picture books. Iíll need to know how to format my manuscript and need a list of publishers."

If the librarian asks questions of her own, resist the urge to get annoyed or assume that he or she doesnít understand what you need. Most likely, they are just trying to determine the best source to help you find what you need. Most information will be in several sources, not one, and may be located in several areas of the library, in forms such as books, magazines or subscription databases.

Realize too, that while librarians are information experts, they are not the reincarnation of every scientist, athlete, or genius who ever lived. They may not be able to tell you how to write the perfect query letter, for instance, but they should be able steer you towards the information or agencies that can.

Even the smallest libraries will have a section about writing.

Hopefully, you can also find some of the "bibles" of the writing industry, such as Writerís Market and Literary Market Place (directories for the publishing and book industries), Books In Print (which tells you just that) and The Readerís Guide to Periodical Literature (a subject index on countless topics that have been published in magazines).

These are just the beginning, and your librarian can also inform you about other sources all writers need from time to time, such as books of quotations; encyclopedias of professional associations; and a variety of dictionaries, thesauruses, or books on grammar and word usage.

To avoid frustration and disappointment, or worse, missed deadlines, donít wait until the last minute to do your research or request materials. Research, by its very nature, takes time and sustained effort. Even if the library owns what you want, it might be checked out to someone else or there could be restrictions involved with lending certain materials. For example, most materials marked "Reference" on the label or in the card catalog must be used at the library and cannot be checked out for use at home.

In all likelihood, you will need to become a patron (a card-carrying member), in order to take advantage of all services, so if you need something on Friday, donít wait until Wednesday or Thursday to visit your library. Make several visits, and take the time to get to know your library and librarian. Allow yourself as much time as possible to determine what you need and whatís available, and give yourself, the library staff, and your career, a chance to shine.
© 2004 Cindy LaPenna

Cindy is a Reference Librarian and writer who lives in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania with her family and two cats, Snuffles and Cheyenne. She has written news, feature, and op-ed articles for various newspapers. Her poetry has been published in Poetic Voices, Haiku Hut, and the Sourgrapes Newsletter. In addition to writing, she enjoys photography, animals, being outdoors, and traveling.

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