As someone who works in early history, I often get asked where I find my books and information.
Things have changed dramatically since my grad school days when you had to pay a reference librarian to run an online database search. To my delight, I’ve been finding more and more 17th-century texts online at specialized collections. This doesn’t replace the thrill of the hunt in person. And I don’t think that I could go too long without getting dusty in the archives, like I did just recently in Rome and in Paris.
Plus some places are just too amazing to miss.
But for those of us who are stuck to their computer chairs and can’t venture out to exotic locales…let me recommend some of my favorite resources for history research in the earlier periods.
I have spoken to a number of friends who are writers outside of academe. I understand deeply the frustration of not having access to many of the resources that are available to college and university faculty. But do know that if you happen to live near a college, it is often possible to get research privileges there. You may or may not be able to check out books–but you will definitely be able to access the databases. And more and more, so much of what you’ll need can be found online.
For databases, my first stops are always:
1. Historical Abstracts
2. History of Science, Technology, and Medicine
3. Modern Language Association (MLA) bibliography
4. Cambridge Histories
For full-text online resources, the choices have become plentiful in the past few years. Here are few of my favorites. Please do share others in the comments!
Open access collections include:
1. The Bibliotheque Nationale in France. Their Gallica collection is ever-expanding and its breadth often stunning. I have found books there that are so esoteric (a 17th-century treatise on snakebites, anyone)–but when you need them, it’s always a treat to find them there.
2. Digital Book Index, supported by the National Union Catalogue (which catalogues holdings in libraries across the U.S.)
3. The British Library’s “turning the pages” project
Two subscription-based collections have saved my research skin when I needed something FAST:
EARLY ENGLISH BOOKS ONLINE (pre-1700)
EIGHTEENTH CENTURY COLLECTIONS ONLINE (1701-1800)
Finally, I have two research crushes…
The first is the Bibliotheque interuniversitaire de Medicine (Paris), which is home to the archives of the University of Paris Medical School. The librarians there, including Mme Molitor and Mme Lambert, have been extraordinarily helpful in my quest to find needles in haystacks. The new reproduction service (OED) is very efficient and not exorbitantly expensive–which is a nice change from the status quo when it comes to French library reproductions.
The second is theWellcome Library for the History of Medicine. Again, a great staff of incredibly knowledgeable librarians and bibliophiles. I’ve had the pleasure of working there twice during extended research trips. In fact, I couldn’t have written my first book or be writing this latest book without the Wellcome. And truly, it’s image collection is a marvel to behold.
Greedy for more library goodies? Take a peek at “Resources for Inquiring Minds” and “Cabinet of Images” in the side links.
Image: Catalogue card for Ambroise Pare, 16th century surgeon. BIUM