ResearchScapes

Discussions on the art and craft of research

Month: March 2018

Accessing Our Local Newspaper, The Day: Challenges and Opportunities

“Digitizing The Day’s back issues is a dream I haven’t given up on.”

-John Ruddy, Copy Desk Chief at The Day

Connecticut College appears on page four of the 450-page history of our local newspaper, The Day Paper: The Story of One of America’s Last Independent Newspapers. This is because in 1911 the newspaper’s early and prominent publisher, Theodore Bodenwein, championed the cause of establishing Connecticut College for Women in New London at a time when other Connecticut towns were vying for the opportunity to host the new college.

Unfortunately for anyone who wants to fact-check the newspaper’s coverage at the time (i.e. October 19, 1911), or any other historical issue, your best bet is to make a trip down to the Public Library of New London (PLNL), where they maintain a complete run of The Day back to 1881 on microfilm.  The PLNL website even claims they are “the only repository in the world with a complete record of the paper.” While that seems mostly true, it is also the case that the Waterford Public Library, the Groton Public Library, the Connecticut State Library, and The Day itself combined have pieces of what amounts to a second or third microfilm copy of the newspaper’s back issues. Not to mention the film negatives allegedly stored at ProQuest that are used in the creation of the microfilm in the first place. All of these copies combined, however, still amount to a rather precarious legacy for our local paper.

Day index by Groton Public Library

Day on microfilm at PLNL  Day index 1881-1890
The Day on microfilm along with a few incomplete print indexes at the Public Library of New London.

The date of October 19, 1911, cited in The Day Paper makes for an interesting example, because it is not covered by the pieces of The Day that were digitized by Google when the company aspired to scan everything in every library; a project that was abandoned in haste without explanation some years ago. At least that’s how The Day‘s Copy Desk Chief John Ruddy recalls the relationship when he described it to me in recent communications. Ruddy estimates that Google scanned about a third of the paper, “but the gaps are random and unpredictable.”

It was only when I asked Ruddy how anyone can make an authoritative claim about what is, or is not, printed in The Day without systematic access to all of its contents, that he explained how he uses the microfilm in conjunction with several incomplete indexes in existence:

  • a card file maintained from 1929 to 1977 by librarians at The Day
  • a system of story clippings from 1977 to around 2000 also at The Day
  • incomplete print indexes available in local public libraries covering the years 1881-1890, with a partial index to one or two decades later in the 1900s
card file at The Day


Conn College entry in the card file at The Day.

Most of the cabinets that makeup The Day’s card and clipping files.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Budding researchers may be surprised to learn The Day is not free and it is not all online.  It has been cut up with scissors over the years into little pieces of paper folded into envelopes and documented by hand on index cards that are organized  in the drawers of some filing cabinets in an office almost no one still uses, while other components were bound between book covers, photographed, microfilmed, and/or digitized in haste and incompletely, some of it available on the internet for you to puzzle over.  The rest of it is buried until someone comes along to sort it all out, assuming the various scattered pieces will last that long. Besides, who would do such a thing? How long would it take? How much would it cost? How come no one does it?

We have to ask these questions as a starting place in the hope that someday something will happen. Hopefully someone will find a grant or a benefactor and connect with the right people to help advance a project like realizing the complete digitization of The Day.

As part of the National Digital Newspaper Program, the Connecticut Digital Newspaper Project has been working in this direction, to be sure, but each NEH grant received only provides for the digitization of a small portion of one or several papers in a state that has seen the publication of some 1,600 newspapers since the 1700s. One outstanding example is the Hartford Courant which has been well-digitized from 1764-1991, albeit by ProQuest rather than the public, and is available through a database via the CT State Library.

For my part, I have talked with stakeholders at area public libraries and now The Day itself about possibly getting a group together to return to the massive project of indexing the entire paper. At least then we would have a means of making efficient use of the microfilm available at PLNL. Ruddy at The Day told me that if I do resume work on the index, then I should focus on the period from 1890 to 1929, which given the tools available is the hardest portion of the paper to search, in his view.

As for access today, in addition to the abovementioned, here’s what we have:

—Andrew Lopez

Researching Towards Fictional Reality

I thought I’d take a moment and write about a kind of research that many people have not engaged in, that is, doing research for fictional writing.

Now, I am not going to write about the research that must occur for real historical fiction. That genre not only requires knowledge of the rules for writing fiction, but also of the rules for writing history. Sometimes it is done well, sometimes it can read as if you are passing through one notecard to another.

Rather, I’m talking about doing the research that is needed to help pull the reader into the mind of the writer’s characters. Scents, sounds, sights, the feel of the physical world, language and accents – all can help create a deeper sense of involvement and realism. Young writers are often taught that they should only write about what they know. But most of us have lives that intersect with many different types of people and locations, all of which must be presented carefully.

For those who are reading this who do not write fiction, you should understand that the struggle, at times a BATTLE, to pull the readers into a character’s reality is central to the success of fiction. For ultimately, writing exists in the minds of readers, not writers.

Sometimes, the task is simple. If you are writing about a culture you are not intimately familiar with, a little research on another culture’s cuisine can launch the reader into a dinner party in…Riyadh. Or Nairobi. Or Stockholm. The research task can be as simple as finding an appropriate, authentic restaurant. Or talking to someone from the culture, or reading a cookbook. Shain Library has some food-related sources that can also be extremely useful, such as:

Food
Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, New York: Scribner, 2003. 3v. Shain Reference GT 2850.E53 2003.

One of the trickiest areas to deal with is different forms of speech and colloquialism. Again, if you are only writing about people you know, this can be easy. But don’t we all know people from other cultures and places, regions of this country? And if your characters are lodged in an historical era different from your own, how do you handle that? It doesn’t have to be a matter of centuries; what about characters in the 1960s, for instance?

For characters representing different cultures, different areas of the United States, different ethnic groups – speech and dialect can add to honest and realistic portrayals. There are many published works on all languages and dialects that can assist a writer with this. For instance, if you search OneSearch, using a subject heading like:

English language – Dialects – United States

you can find books such as:

dialect

American Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and Writers, Lewis Herman and Marguerite Shalett Herman, New York: Routledge, 1997. Shain PN2071.F6 H39 1997

You can find a wide variety of books across the CTW collections. For more specialized linguistic areas, try searching WorldCat, or asking a reference librarian for help.

A cautionary note: When you are trying to represent language differences in your writing, you must consciously balance honest representation against the readers’ expectations (and possible biases.) People may think that everyone in Boston pahks their cah in Hahvahd Yahd. But, in reality, most people park their car in Harvard Yard (…if in fact they could park there at all, which they cannot!) There can be real tensions between readers’ beliefs and biases, and how people really behave and want to be represented, and these tensions must be presented sensitively.

The internet has also opened up great possibilities for this kind of research. As with any kind of research on the open internet, be careful about the validity of sites and their “facts.” Caution is called for when you are using information that builds characters and their attitudes and experiences.

The internet can be particularly useful when you are searching for information about geographic settings. Open searching on Google, and restricting the search to images, can turn up many usable images – images that can be useful to get a feel for settings that you might not be able to visit, or that you have visited but not lived in. Geographic locations, types of buildings, historic locations, etc., are all easily searched and will turn up a multitude of mood-creating photos. Venice, for instance: if you’ve never experienced that city, or that city beyond its most famous locations, consider this photo and the feeling it generates:

venice
Photo by Wenni Zhou on Unsplash

Pursuing images of this sort can assist a writer in turning their vision into the written word.

Google maps is also a rich location to mine for local geographic information. In years past, hunting through atlases was a common activity for some people writing fiction. Most of that can now be done easily on Google maps.

Finally, can too much research get in the way?

More appropriately, this question should be: Can a writer overuse the results of extensive research? The answer to that question can always be yes, whether the project is a fiction-based work, or a traditional academic work. If an academic writer is writing a review article on a subject, extensive presentation of research is warranted. But when you are using research to answer and support
positions, careful selection of the most relevant and appropriate sources is important.

The same is even truer when integrating research into fictional writing. What effect are you hoping for? How does research support that effect, or that development of a particular character? Simple facts, with a single evocative adjective can often be the solution. One example: He sipped the strong coffee, and the sharp sweet taste spread through his mouth. The careful, unobtrusive presentation of a fact that strikes sensory or emotional notes has much greater effect that a large presentation on Turkish coffee.

Always remember the questions you are seeking to answer, the effect you are reaching for. Use the facts and knowledge you achieve through research to address those things as simply and honestly as possible.

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