Sunday, March 14, 2010

Revealing History

It was great meeting so many of you at the Chesterfield County Library Writers Workshop. I had a few people ask if I could post the major notes of my session, so I added the major highlights here:

Research: How do you find it?

Always keep an eye out, because history surrounds us, from historic markers on the sides of roads to ‘history’ tabs on businesses’ or organizations’ websites. Outside of general awareness, here are some ideas:

1. Museums, Societies, Non-profits, and Clubs

We often don’t realize how many organizations exist that specialize in our research areas, and moreover, how willing so many people are to help with a project.

The museums themselves are full of information. I highly encouraging visiting as you begin your research, but their archives and staff can also hold secrets.

Richmond area:

-Virginia Historic Society (

-Richmond History Center (

-Wilton House Museum (

-Museum of the Confederacy (

-John Marshall House (

-Virginia Holocaust Museum (

-Edgar Allan Poe Museum (

-Virginia Aviation Museum (

Washington, D.C. area:

-Smithsonian Institution ( – covering 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo

-International Spy Museum (

-National Museum of Crime and Punishment (

-National Museum of Women in the Arts (

-National Postal Museum (

-Cold War Museum (

-Library of Congress (

-National Building Museum (

This is by no means a full list of the historical institutions in these cities; however it’s a good start.

2. Online resources

When so many of us are curious, we turn to Google and Wikipedia. Both have their merits, of course, but there are certain resources that can save you the time of slogging through that website made by a 4th grader in Wisconsin, and that blog of unknown reliability. Museum archives are great places to start. Here are some other recommendations:

- Virginia Genealogical Society ( - Organized in 1960 to foster interest in genealogical, biographical, and historical research

-WWW Virtual Library: History Center Catalog - ( – A premier meta-site for all history across regions, cultures, and time.

- ( – This site audience is K-12 teachers, but is a great guide to reputable websites for anyone beginning their research.

-Bedford/St. Martin’s History Site ( – Created by a reputable textbook company, this site is comprehensive.

3. Resources at Colleges and Universities

We live in an area with many college and universities. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of this proximity. University libraries have special collections and archives as well as access to great amounts of materials for the use of their researching faculty and students. Even if you are not a member of that school’s community, you can join with a non-affiliate registration or as a community borrower.

Also realize that the faculty of these institutions are a large base of experts on a large variety of topics. I would encourage you to examine course listings within departments to see professors' specializations. If you find someone who could be helpful, don’t hesistate to send an email. In the worst case scenario, you will not get a response; however, nine times out of ten these local experts will be excited to help someone fascinated by their area of expertise.

4. Resources at Other Libraries

Be it the Chesterfield County Library ( or the Library of Virginia (, our local libraries of full of resources, databases, research tools, and perhaps most significantly, hard working librarians who are wonderful guides to the research process.

From microfiche films of newspapers or magazines that have not yet been digitized to programs and events held weekly, libraries are wonderful launching points for research.

Especially do not forget the digital collections and research possibilities on the Library of Virginia website, including their guides and archives.

Researching: What should you look for?

1. Think about your research focus, and then broaden it.

For example if you’re researching the Dooleys and Maymont, you don’t just want to think about the historic figures. You’ll also want to think about politics in Richmond; the architecture of Virginia, of Italy, and of Japan; the social implications of not having children; issues in Richmond/Virginia/the United States at that time; Victorian thought processes, etc…

No matter how you will be using your research, having the surrounding details can only help.

2. Follow Tangents

Sometimes the most exciting research finds come from wandering away from your research focus. If something on the side interests you, follow that lead and see where it takes you.

3. Definitions/Explanations

Remember all of the pieces that go into quality research. Knowing how that car works may be just as important as knowing that it existed at a certain time. Also, you want to make sure your terminology is correct.

4. Use primary sources when ever possible.

Other people’s second hand or third hand accounts can be fine, but you’ll be able to feel the history if you’re looking at diary entries, personal correspondence, or other types of primary evidence.

5. Validity of sources

You want to fact-check yourself as you go. Seeing something once doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true. Find multiple sources that agree on key facts before you accept them and more forward.


Feel free to email me if you have any questions or need a guide for your own research. I’m happy to help.

Happy writing and researching, everyone!


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