You’re living in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1882.
You use your home telephone to ring someone in Ontario. Is that possible?
You open the morning newspaper and see a photograph taken the previous evening. Could that happen?
These are just two of the hundreds of questions I’ve had to answer in writing my historical novel Scattered. I’ve found a lot of information through books and my friend Google, but they don’t always give me exactly what I need. If only I could access magazines and newspaper articles from the era. Oh wait! I can!
Digital archives and libraries have been around since the early days of the internet and they’re expanding all the time. Billions of documents have now been scanned and made available for public use. You can find recipes, letters, diaries, church bulletins, shipping lists, birth records, financial statements and more. Perhaps the most interesting of all are the historical magazines, newspapers and academic journals. Not only can these documents answer your questions, but they provide a unique slice of life that can bring an extra dimension to your narrative. You can peruse the actual publications that your protagonists would have been reading in the time period of your book. What were they wearing? Where did they shop? What products did they have in their homes? What tonic did they use for stomach ailments? How much was a train ticket? Which bank did they use? What would they have eaten in a restaurant?
The Canadiana site (http://eco.canadiana.ca/) has been one of the most useful for my novel. I now know that fashionable men preferred checked patterns on their trousers, and that the Church of Holy Trinity was looking for a competent church organist. I can also access medical journals to see what treatments my fictional doctor would have used.
Although I’ve given examples that relate to my novel, these historical documents are just as relevant for biographies and other forms of creative nonfiction. You might be writing about your grandmother’s life as a trapeze artist with a travelling circus, but you’ll really bring her story to life if you understand more about the times and the places she visited.
- You could start with some of the resources I’ve listed below. If you don’t find what you need in that list, try searching for archives and libraries in your desired location. It’s trickier if these are in a different language, though some sites also offer language options.
- Some online archives are completely free and allow you to download and print full texts of the documents. Others require a subscription in order to access most things. Then there those that are partially free (e.g. you might be able to access some resources for free, but have to be a member for full access; or you might be able to see the entire document, but have to subscribe in order to save and print a copy). If you’re after a particular publication, check if it’s available elsewhere before subscribing. For example, you have to subscribe to the British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/in order to access their copies of the Illustrated London News. However, you can read some copies for free on sites such as the Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://www.hathitrust.org/
- Don’t just look for obvious publications, like metropolitan newspapers or women’s magazines. I found an eyewitness account of a Sable Island shipwreck in a newspaper called Canadian Methodist Magazine. I also found tons of helpful information about telecommunications, building projects, inventions and innovations, fashion and merchandise in a financial newspaper.
- Remember that the purpose of your research is to answer questions relevant to your novel and to add colour and richness to your story. The aim is not to dump all of your fascinating information into the laps of readers. The iceberg principle applies. You’ll read a lot more than you use, but that reading will give you the background you’ll need to write convincing scenes and hopefully avoid the rewriting I’ve had to do.
- Of course, it would be remiss of me not to issue a warning. These sites are highly addictive. You can start out looking for answers to your questions and end up spending the morning skimming through Women’s Weeklies from the year you were born. “Oh look, here’s a pattern for making Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat.” Set yourself a goal and try to stick to it (she says as she flicks through a 1942 Photoplay magazine).
No, a photograph taken one evening in 1882 was unlikely to appear in the newspaper the next morning because the processes needed to rapidly reproduce halftone photos was still being developed. However, it is feasible that a photo could feature in a magazine some time after the event due to the extra lead-up time.
I've included some web links below to get you started. What other resources have you found helpful in your work? I’d love to hear your suggestions.
Trove (https://trove.nla.gov.au/) – This is an Australian government initiative that has archives of newspapers, magazines, photos, diaries, music, videos and more. It’s free to access, and is being added to all the time.
Australian Women’s Weekly (https://archive.org/details/Australian_Womens_Weekly
Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://www.hathitrust.org/
Canadiana (http://eco.canadiana.ca/) – For all things Canada, though it also has material that would be more widely relevant. You can browse and look at the first few pages of documents for free. However, you have to subscribe to have full access and download materials. The low monthly fee is well worth it.
Project Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/) – A collection of more than 57 000 digitised books, available for free.
And of course, don’t forget your national and state libraries, which also have many resources available online:
- Australian National Library – https://www.nla.gov.au/
- State Library of Queensland – http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/
- State Library of New South Wales – https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/
- State Library of Victoria – https://www.slv.vic.gov.au/
- State Library of South Australia – http://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/site/page.cfm
- State Library of Western Australia – http://www.slwa.wa.gov.au/
- Libraries Tasmania – https://www.libraries.tas.gov.au/Pages/Home.aspx
- Northern Territory Library – https://ntl.nt.gov.au/