If you’ve ever flipped through a card catalog, scrolled through reels of microfiche, or photocopied pages of reference books at the library, then you can appreciate how the Internet has revolutionized the way we dig for facts. Today, we welcome author Jennifer Robson, who talks about how on-line research made her first novel possible.
Wonderful to have you with us, Jennifer!
I’m going to come right out and be honest: I’m forty-four. Some days I feel it—every single minute of it, in fact—and some days I can’t believe that it’s been more than twenty years since my first day of graduate school.
I landed at Oxford in the autumn of 1992, raring to go, brand-new laptop in hand, all set to begin work on my research degree in Modern History. As an undergraduate, I’d begun university with a typewriter, moving on to one of my dad’s old MS-DOS machines in second year, and for this, my leap into graduate school, I’d saved up and bought myself the ne plus ultra of computers: a first-generation Apple Macbook. It was roughly the size of a large textbook, although it weighed a lot more. Its screen was grayscale, it had no internal modem, and it was good for one thing only: running WordPerfect. I adored it.
I spent a little less than three years doing the research for my doctoral dissertation, which focused on aspects of British household economy in the inter-war period and Second World War. For months on end I sat in the Bodleian Library’s upper reading room, reading through old magazines and contemporary literature, laboriously typing out notes on my Macbook. The library catalog hadn’t been computerized, so I looked up the holdings in huge bound volumes, wrote out requests on slips of paper, and waited for my materials to be shipped up from the huge subterranean holdings across the street.
But that was only the tip of the research iceberg, as it were. The primary source documents I needed were elsewhere: in London at the British Library Reading Room, the Newspaper Library in Colindale, the Public Record Office in Kew, and the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. I also had to journey down to Brighton so I might comb through the Mass-Observation archive at the University of Sussex.
As you can imagine, these research trips were pretty hard on my budget. Bus fare, Tube fare, the cost of photocopying when I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information in the documents I called up. I was able to stay with a friend in London, so didn’t have to pay for accommodation there, but the cost of a room in a B&B in Brighton for the two weeks I spent at the Mass-Observation archive nearly beggared me.
But there was no way around it. None of the documents I needed had been digitized. None of them. If I wished to read an item, I had to go to where it was stored and copy down its contents.
I should also add that, as far as newspapers were concerned, only a single paper had been indexed, and that was The Times. To find information from any other newspaper, I had to call up a reel of microfilm for the beginning of the period that interested me and start reading. Because The Times wasn’t widely read by the people I was researching, namely middle- and working-class men and women, I ended up combing through nearly thirty years of microfilmed copies of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and, yes, the News of the World, in those days a perfectly respectable working-class Sunday paper.
Fast forward to 2007. I was at home with a toddler and newborn, my work as a freelance editor had shriveled to almost nothing, and I had an idea for a novel about the First World War that I couldn’t get out of my head.
I began by reading my way through hundreds of secondary sources, most of them histories of the Great War, and almost all borrowed from the holdings of the Toronto Public Library. That was the easy part.
My next step was those pesky primary sources. In this I faced a number of obstacles. Chief among them was money—I couldn’t even afford a laptop of my own, the Macbook having died years before, let alone the expense of a research trip to England. And what would I do with my children while I was away? They were both so young, neither of them was in school full time, and I hadn’t yet spent so much as a night away from them.
But a lot had changed since I did the research for my doctorate. Most significantly, many of Britain’s museums, archives and libraries had embarked on the digitization of their holdings. At the National Archives, for example, nearly all the remaining records for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps had been digitized and were available for consultation online. Tens of thousands of items held at the Imperial War Museum could be viewed online, among them uniforms, identity tags, medals, photographs and paintings. And there were audio interviews with veterans and civilians, too, many done in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as rare snippets of film from the period.
It’s hard to put into words just how freeing this was. Twenty years earlier, I simply would not have been able to write Somewhere in France—not without making several expensive journeys overseas. Instead I was able to turn on my computer, search for the information I required, transfer copies of documents, maps, photographs or artwork to my hard drive, and then examine my discoveries at my leisure (e.g. while the kids were sleeping).
Yes, I had to pay to view many of those documents and, yes, I had to take out subscriptions to a number of websites in order to view their holdings. All told, however, these fees totaled a few hundred dollars—far, far less than the cost of a research trip.
It’s also the case that I was able to conduct my research in a far more efficient manner, for most of the holdings I consulted had been indexed as well as digitized. When I think of how long it took me to sift the proverbial wheat from the chaff, back in the early 1990s, I can’t help but envy the researchers and graduate students of today.
It’s not the same, I know. Nothing can compare to the experience of sitting in a historic library—the great dome of the British Library, the frescoed and gilded interior of the Bodleian—as you read through texts, letting the words and knowledge sink in, feeling the pieces of an argument slide together. I miss it more than I can say.
What I don’t miss is the sheer inaccessibility of it all. Simply obtaining a reader’s ticket for the British Library took an inordinate amount of time, effort and form-filling, while the Bodleian is even more impenetrable to anyone who isn’t a student at Oxford or an accredited academic. What of writers like myself—people armed only with their ideas, a mountain of questions, and very little money to spare?
Yes, the fees or subscriptions attached to many archives can be problematic for those on an especially tight budget, and this will only increase as public institutions offset the cost of digitization by working with private firms, an example being the British Library’s partnership with BrightSolid on the British Newspaper Archive. In general, however, it was easier, faster and far cheaper to research Somewhere in France than it was to research my doctoral thesis two decades earlier.
The digital revolution, if I may call it that, has had a profound effect on the way I research my books, and I don’t doubt that many other authors, researchers and academics will say the same. I would love to know if it has changed the way you research your books, no matter the genre. Do you now rely on digitized holdings, or do you still prefer to hold a document in your hands? Have digital collections given you the freedom to write on subjects that might otherwise have been too difficult to research properly, or is the information you require still waiting to be digitized?
Amy Alessio hosts Reader Roundup on Saturday, February 22nd, and author Adrienne Giordano joins us on Monday, February 24th.
SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford aspires to a life of independence, substance and meaning. She longs to break the glass ceiling imposed by the social standing of her family, and the inherent expectation of the kind of pursuits acceptable for a young woman of “gentle breeding.” She wishes she had someone to confide her feelings. Her beloved brother Edward has always listened and tried to understand. The only other man besides him to do the same was his friend—Robert Fraser—but it’s been years since he’s visited the family estate.
Robbie Fraser is reluctant to attend the lavish gala
hosted by Edward and Lady Elizabeth’s parents—the Earl and Countess of Cumberland. Robbie’s achievements as a surgeon are respected at the hospital, but his accomplishments don’t count for much among the privileged elite who’ll be in attendance at the ball.
In a fated moment, Lady Elizabeth and Robbie catch sight of one another at the party—and are each forever changed.
When the world is engulfed by war, Robbie lends his medical expertise to a field hospital on the Western Front. Having finally broken free of convention and her disapproving parents, Lady Elizabeth has become an ambulance driver with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
Inspired in part by her time as an official guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge in France, in SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE, Jennifer Robson weaves an evocative tale of love and courage in a bygone age—bringing a satisfying work of historical fiction, superbly fitting for those who enjoy the themes and period setting of Downton Abbey.
Bio: Jennifer Robson first learned about the Great War from her father, acclaimed historian Stuart Robson. In her late teens, she worked as an official guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge in France and had the honor of meeting a number of First World War veterans. After graduating from King’s College at the University of Western Ontario, she attended Saint Antony’s College, University of Oxford, where she earned a doctorate in British economic and social history. She was a Commonwealth Scholar and an SSHRC Doctoral Fellow while at Oxford. She has since worked as a magazine editor and copywriter. Jennifer lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and young children. SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE is her first novel. For more information please visit: www.jennifer-robson.com
- Weekly Lecture Schedule: Monday, Feb. 17 – Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014
- Researching Historical Fiction: Make it Fun by Jessica James
- Hands-on Research at the Writers’ Police Academy
- When Internet Research Fails—Talking to Real People
- Donna MacMeans: The Value of Research