Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Sara K Joiner: Take Advantage of Your Libraries

I was fortunate enough to attend two sessions about writing historical fiction at the Texas Library Association's Annual Conference. The second session, from Ann Weissgarber, focused on utilizing libraries for research.

As a librarian, I know the wealth of information libraries contain. As a writer of historical fiction, I know the importance of research.

But I didn't always know the the full power available to me at libraries.

I still remember the first time I ever heard of inter-library loan. I was in tenth grade and had recently watched Coal Miner's Daughter with Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn. Naturally, I wanted to read the book, but my high school library didn't have it.

Undeterred, my mother and I went to the public library the next weekend. This was a bigger deal than it sounds as that library -- the Friench-Simpson Memorial Library in Hallettsville, Texas -- was 20 miles from my house.

Unfortunately, the library didn't have the book either. Mom suggested I try to get it through inter-library loan.

"What is that?" I asked.

"When one library doesn't have the book you want, they can get it from another library," she explained.

That sounded too good to be true. The library would simply get it from somewhere else? You couldn't do that at the video store or a department store or Walmart.

Certain this was something only available at big libraries like Houston, where my mother grew up, I walked up to the circulation desk at my little one-building library prepared to be laughed right out onto the street.

"Can you do inter-library loan?" I asked timidly.

"Yes, we can," the librarian said. "You just need to fill out this form."

Imagine my shock!

Coal Miner's Daughter arrived about a month or later, and I read it with delight. A paper inter-library loan band obscured the cover, but that was a small price to pay for the incredible service provided by inter-library loan.

Now that I'm a librarian, I know how much work inter-library loans are for library staff. But it's still worth it. The service is generally free and there is still some minor paperwork, but much of the heavy lifting is done online now. One of the more fascinating aspects of inter-library loan is seeing where the material came from. I once got a book from the United States Department of State Library, which is how I learned there was a State Department Library.

A library's card catalog --
the original search engine
At college, I discovered another library secret. Librarians love to do research! When I had exhausted my own meager research skills as a freshman, I shyly approached the circulation desk once again. Admittedly, the desk at Texas Lutheran University's Blumberg Library was quite a bit larger than the desk at the Friench-Simpson Memorial Library.

I explained my needs. I can no longer remember the specifics -- whatever paper I was writing at the time was not nearly as exciting as reading Coal Miner's Daughter.

Off I was led on a journey through the largest reference collection I had ever seen up to that point -- Statistical Updates for every country, subject dictionaries, resource guides, plus the usual encyclopedias (more than World Book), atlases and almanacs -- all up-to-date. She also showed me how to use the online databases to find even more information.

Most importantly, she empowered me to find information on my own.

Once I started library school at the University of Texas at Austin -- and found an even larger reference collection -- I didn't feel so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information found there.

As a librarian and historical fiction author, I get to combine the best of both worlds. Researching time periods, events and lives for information that will be useful or interesting in novels for children. What could be better?

Tell your students to ask librarians for help. We won't give you the answers, but we'll give you a ton of resources to find what you need. The tougher the question, the more we enjoy the challenge.

Take advantage of our skills. We paid a lot of money to graduate schools to get them. Remember Google doesn't have all the answers. Your librarian may not have the answer either, but she will go out of her way to find it. Google will never do that.

Sara K Joiner is the author of After the Ashes, coming in October from Holiday House. She is also the children's coordinator for the Brazoria County Library System.


  1. Librarians are worth more than they are paid, and are always so eager to help.