Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Google Books and the art of magazine article research

Several years ago I had a fun assignments for the Boston Globe Magazine: an essay about Mount Greylock, Massachusetts' highest mountain. The newspeg: it was the one hundredth anniversary of the establishment of a reservation, and I had carte blanche on the approach.

While Mount Greylock is important in the state geographically, it also serves as a character in New England's literary and spiritual fabric. I had worked for a small weekly in nearby Williamstown, so I knew much of the local lore. But I didn't know much about that literary history, beyond the old tale that Herman Melville took inspiration for Moby Dick from the  Leviathan-shaped Greylock, which sat to the north of his Pittsfield Farm, Arrowhead.

So I ended up on one of the umpteenth floors of the DuBois Library, and spent a very happy afternoon wandering the American Literature stacks, reading through Hawthorne's American Notebooks, a biography of Melville, Thoreau's account of a hike up (and a night spent on) Mount Greylock, which, a few days later, I tried to recreate with my husband and daughter.

I remembered thinking how lucky I was to be a writer, getting paid to spend an afternoon in the library reading books. And I realized how much deep research--and time--can go into a 3,000-word piece.

Fast forward to today: I'm writing a piece about artists' chapels in southern France, and, after striking out at the library, I tried researching my topic using Google books. I was stunned. What a difference a decade makes. In two seconds, up pop books, articles, even full-text coverage of the opening of one chapel in 1957 in a Life magazine story, complete with photographs. It would have taken me days, weeks, if ever, to find some of these sources. And here they are, delivered to my desktop while I'm sipping a cup of tea.

Then just for further kicks, I recreated my Greylock research on Google Books and found some unbelievable source material, including the digital version of Hawthorne's notebooks and material from the early 1900's, much of it by local historians and regional travel writers of the day, which I never would have found in a hard-copy library.

This is background that can add a real richness and detail to a story. If you're writing any kind of long form journalism, I strongly encourage you to start your research on Google Books and play around.

You'll find material you didn't even know you were looking for.

No comments: