It’s been just over a year since I left my job to become an independent scholar/freelance writer/humanist at large/wow this terminology is bad. I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s possible and not possible in this gig. One huge shift was rethinking how I got access to all those library databases that make my research possible.
I’ve really been pretty fortunate, given that I could easily not have access to anything I need (more on that after the break). But it’s a bit of a hodge-podge and there are still things I don’t have access to. So for the curious, here’s a list of what resources I use and how/if I have access to them. The specifics of the list come from my particular research interests (at the moment, early modern printing practices), but the general strategies and obstacles should resonate well beyond my particular niche.
One point before I get started. This issue came up for me because I chose to go to work for myself. But the difficulties in accessing resources is also true for faculty at many schools that can’t afford expensive databases and journals. Staff at independent libraries and museums often don’t have much access, either.1 And did you know that lots of program officers at grant-funding agencies don’t have access to these things? It’s true! I’m not sure how pressing it is for journalists to research book history, but lots of journalists report on subjects for which it is necessary to draw on academic research, and they, too, don’t have access. It’s a wide-spread issue, and there is not, at the moment, great ways of handling it. But this is an informative post, not a ranting post, so let’s get on with it.
Some things are open access:
English Short Title Catalogue: The ESTC is an open-access catalog of (basically) works printed in English or in the British Isles and North America between 1473 and 1800. It’s hosted by the British Library and it’s essential for working in the early modern period and I refer to it more often than I can count. update: ESTC is starting to link to more open-access digitizations of books, in addition to the EEBO and ECCO links it already provides.
Universal Short Title Catalogue: The USTC is an open-access catalog of works printed in Europe up to 1600 (the beta site is expanding access through 1700). It’s hosted by the University of St Andrews, and it’s a super catalog, and I love it also because it links to digitizations of works, where possible, often open-access ones.
RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage: This just recently became an open-access journal and praise be, because it’s the place to go for lots of the questions facing special collections libraries today.
update: I forgot to mention that institutional repositories are a great help to me. I rarely start there, but if I don’t have access to a journal, I will sometimes google the title and find that the article’s author has deposited it in their IR. Do you have access to an institutional or disciplinary repository? Have you negotiated contracts that allow you to deposit your work? Please do those things. It really, truly helps.
My alumna affiliations pay off:
JSTOR and Project Muse: These are huge collections of journals, and many of the ones I need are online through these sites. I get access to these through my alumna affiliations with Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania. What specific journals you can read depends on the package a school has; I tend to connect through Penn, since they generally have a larger collection. A few years ago, JSTOR really started pushing alum packages, so it’s always worth checking with your school(s). It’s also possible to get individual access (there’s the free Register & Read, with limited journal participation, and the more expansive and expensive JPASS, although a lot of scholarly societies offer discounted subscriptions).
There are a bunch of other resources I have access to through Penn, including a huge number of Adam Matthew databases, like Colonial America, Eighteenth Century Journals, and Shakespeare in Performance. This is amazing to me, because I when I checked what I had access to last year, Adam Matthew was not an option. Fingers crossed it sticks around!
I joined some societies specifically to get access to stuff:
Early English Books Online: EEBO is a collection of digitized microfilms of works printed in English or in the British Isles and North America between 1473 and 1700. It’s a database published by ProQuest and only available through paid library subscriptions. But if you’re a member of the Renaissance Society of America, you can get access to EEBO. RSA memberships are on a sliding scale, starting at $35 for annual income less than $12,000.2 It’s a super reasonable price, I think. I couldn’t function without EEBO, so I’m super grateful that RSA provides this. Earlier this year, when it looked like that agreement had fallen apart, I panicked. Please, please, never let that agreement end. Please. (A note here: I am only really interested in facsimile images of works, not in the transcriptions that the Text Creation Partnership provides, so yes, I know about the release of the first batch of TCP texts and no, that is not helpful to me.)
The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society: A long-running important journal of book history that’s part of the Oxford Journals suite and not available through JSTOR (although post-2006 issues are on Project Muse). But I joined The Bibliographical Society ($65 a year), and so get full access to the current and past issues that way.
Hi, public library!
Oxford English Dictionary: The OED is the best dictionary when you need the long history of definitions for a word. I was so incredibly excited when I realized I got online access through Montgomery County Public Libraries.
The MoCo libraries also have access to a few other resources, including the Gale Literature Resource Center, which includes the great Bracken and Silver collection of stationer biographies, The British Literary Book Trade, 1475-1700.
I could shell out more dough
The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America would be available to me if I joined BSA for $65, but I haven’t yet. update Feb 2017: Weirdly, I can get access to PBSA through JSTOR, it just doesn’t appear in their list of journals. But if I search for an article in the journal, I can get to the entire run of 1912-2015 that way. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: The DNB has individual subscriptions for $29.95 a month or $295 a year. I love the DNB but I don’t need it enough to pay that.
World Shakespeare Bibliography: I still sometimes do Shakespeare research, but it’s generally not my focus at the moment, so I’m not paying $88 (though as a member of Shakespeare Association of America, I’d get a discount).
update Feb 2017: There are other libraries that offer access to some databases through a membership, including the Boston Athanaeum (not cheap) and apparently the Wellcome Library (free!), which astonishingly offers off-site access to a huge number of databases.
Books, books, books. You know what’s amazing about being at a university? You can check out books from your library. And almost always, if your uni doesn’t have what you want, they get it for you through interlibrary loan. I do not have a research library from which I can borrow books or that can procure what I need. What this means is that sometimes I buy books, but hardly ever from academic publishers that price their books for library purchasing (hi, Cambridge UP and your $99 hardbacks). I buy used books (some of what I want isn’t in print anyway). When in dire need, I have a choice of libraries that I can schlep to and sit in their reading rooms. I’m ridiculously lucky that the Folger is within commuting distance and that they are a library that specializes in most of the early printing information I need, and I can often find the more digital stuff is often at the University of Maryland or at the Library of Congress. (I could pay an annual fee to borrow books from UMd as a “community researcher,” but it hasn’t been necessary.) If I lived in, say, western Maryland, I’d have a much harder time.
Gnashing of teeth
Not everything works out. There are some resources that I used to use or that I would like to use that I can’t.
Eighteenth Century Collections Online: ECCO is like EEBO, but for the 18th century (and, honestly, with more annoying digitization practices, like omitting blank pages from their imaging) (also, I’m not sure why it’s not hyphenated–doesn’t “eighteenth century” modify “collections” and therefore should be “eighteenth-century”?–but that’s how they do it). As far as I know, Gale doesn’t offer individual subscriptions. (Again: I’m really only interested in facsimiles not in transcriptions.)
Early European Books: EEB is like EEBO but for European books and with actual decent images, not digitized microfilm. (It hasn’t reached the stage of including all print that EEBO claims to have, but it’s striving for that.) ProQuest doesn’t offer individual subscriptions so I’m SOL.
Like many scholars, even those who are full-time faculty, I have to ask for help in getting copies of things I need to read. I tend to shy away from tweeting out calls for help, usually targeting smaller groups of friends in the field I’m working in. I’m often able to get a copy of what I need that way, but it’s not practical for large-scale research.
I really am lucky. I’m lucky because thanks to RSA I have access to the single most important thing I need at a really low cost. I’m lucky because I went to well-resourced schools for my BA and PhD. (I just checked: a Maryland alum doesn’t get off-site access to any library resources.) I’m lucky because I live in a place that has research libraries. I’m lucky because I know lots and lots of scholars and they are willing to help.
If I worked on, say, 20th-century manuscripts, and lived in western Maryland, and had gone to a state university for my PhD, and was just starting out in my scholarly career, I wouldn’t be able to work as an independent researcher at all.