researching while unaffiliated

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. ((I used to at the Folger via its affiliation with Amherst; I don’t know what the Newberry or Huntington folks do.)) 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.

There are a fair number of open-access images of early printed texts available online; see my list but also my caveat about what a drag it is trying to find things this way.

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. ((They’ve just announced this, so the new membership scale might not be on their site yet.)) 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.

I beg.

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.

My take-away

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.

23 thoughts on “researching while unaffiliated

  1. You are lucky, but could be luckier, and are perhaps more lucky than you (yet) know. I’ve been following the independent route for about seven years now. At first I went through many similar attempts to gain database access – by hook or by crook. But (1) I’m luckier than you in that my main research is nineteenth-century intellectual history and the great bulk of my primary sources can be found for free on the wonderful internet archive; and (2) I have come increasingly to appreciate *not* having ready access to the secondary literature. This last sounds odd, but has become a chief benefit of operating outside the universities. In my field, at least, all sorts of wrong-headed and erroneous tracks have been laid down by scholars over the last few decades and the institutional mechanisms are evidently set up so that younger scholars are taught to take this secondary literature as their starting point and only consult the primary material in order to resolve issues arising out of the ongoing ‘conversation’. Once all that secondary noise is silenced, and the primary literature becomes the starting point of research, it is quite astonishing how different everything starts to look.

  2. I’m very much in the same boat and have come to accept “independent scholar.” My public library subscribes to JSTOR (two concurrent users only!) and ONDB, so I can see those online. I can visit local universities or prevail on friends and family for much of the rest, particularly the Burney Collection Newspapers. I hate to admit how useful I find Google Books and Google Scholar.

  3. Thank you for this! And definitely thank you for noting that smaller libraries and organizations don’t have much money for access, either. It was startling to go from having a wide range of online resources at library school to almost none out in the work world. Very difficult for academic research and particularly for continuing professional education. (Neither of my schools offer remote database access to alumni.)

    I moved to Oregon last year and am in love with their Library Passport Program. I can sign up for borrowing privileges at almost any public municipal or university library in the state. Most are restricted (I can only check out five items at a time from Portland State University, with database access just onsite), and the geography of Oregon means lots of driving if you want to use all of the big universities. But I am thrilled that I have access to a good range of the academic titles most public libraries don’t collect. It was a pilot program here, and I wish more states would invest in similar projects.

    I wanted to note that older issues of the Papers of the BSA are on JSTOR, though perhaps your package differs from the ones I have access to.

    Finally, thank you for pointing out the relatively inexpensive costs of the RSA and Bibliographical Society. I sorely miss having access to The Library in particular. It often feels like every third article I want to read is from that journal. I just might make the leap.

    1. Oh, PBSA is a perfect example: my JSTOR access gets me 1909 through 1911, but that’s it! That’s kind of hilarious, actually. My Project Muse access does get me recent years of The Library (2006 on forwards) but there’s so much great stuff in the older issues.

  4. There is also HathiTrust. It’s largely books… scanned by Google, but much better metadata and searching, never mind better image quality down downloading. If you can get access via a member library, you can download the entire book. Otherwise, it’s page-by-page.

  5. I wonder how EEB compares to –which I think is the non-Anglophone equivalent to HathiTrust. I often forget to look at but a number of great libraries (John Carter Brown, U of Toronto) have full scans hosted there.

    1. Europeana is more like DPLA than HathiTrust, but with a much less useful interface. EEB is meant to be like EEBO (decent metadata). In any case, as I’ve written about, the lack of centralized and correctly cataloged digitizations is exasperating.

    1. Wow, that is amazing amazing amazing. I think I’m in love. I definitely should’ve joined last time I was there, but maybe this just makes planning my next trip more pressing.

  6. Thanks for this post. It encourages my choice to figure out how to participate in the academic world as an unaffiliated person. Here’s a crazy thing: I’ve gotten stuff via interlibrary loan through my public library.

    1. I’ve not had success with my public library ILL. I requested a book that seemed like it should be available (although only one participating library had it) but just got silence in response. It’s a good option in some places, though!

      1. A key to good results with ILL is to make friends, good friends, with the ILL department at your local library. It can take a lot of work to find a willing lender and not all ILL staff are willing (or incented) to do so.

  7. Thank you for sharing an experience very like my own, though at 67 I retired into independent-scholar-hood rather later than you did. Congratulations for managing to bolt for freedom while eyesight is keen and touch firm. To your list of free bibliographic resources, I can add one that has been great for European printed books if the Universal STC strikes out: the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie Virtual Catalog (KVK). It allows one to selectively search all of Europe’s union catalogs, including the UK and Russia (!), Worldcat, and the European “Booktrade” links. That last set can access the booksellers’ invaluable, image-laden, copy-specific descriptions. Search speed is great, but search output can be very spotty to awful until one learns to cut down the terms to the bare minimum to avoid time-out failures.

  8. Thanks so much for this post. It is a great encouragement. I have been a cataloger for 28 years plus other positions as well. I would like to know how I can get more involved in the book history community. I have joined SHARP, Bibliographical Society of America, American Printing History Association, and MLA. I have done lots of reading in book history. Thanks, Chris

    1. Ahhh, community! That’s something I didn’t talk about here but that is a big part of doing research. It sounds like you’ve joined all the right organizations. Going to the SHARP conference, if you can, is a great way to meet folks, as is joining the SHARP listserv. I’m also a big fan of Rare Book School, which is not cheap, but is a great way to learn a ton and to meet like-minded folks!

      1. I second the recommendation to check out RBS courses. Their descriptive bibliography “boot camp” is famous, and a course taught by Will Noel (then at the Walters) and Paul Needham on C15 manuscript and printed books gave me a lifetime of new ways to see and understand how the two types of books work. Especially if you live near enough to the teaching site (and they’re not all in Virginia), you can save on housing by commuting to the classes. They also have really increased their internal scholarship support with donations from members, and have built a good set of external funding links to help students defray the costs:

  9. Thanks for the information that RBM is now Open Access. You can search across the full-text of all known Open Access / free history journals at and RBM will be added there shortly.

  10. A problem I increasingly encounter, as a would-be private scholar in my retirement, is that the university library for which I pay for access as an external borrower is acquiring new monographs as ebooks rather than in hard copy. The problem is that these ebook versions are accessible by current staff and students only, not external borrowers or even alumni. Over time, the hard-copy monograph collection, to which I have access (for a fee!), will become increasingly out of date.

    Do you or you readers have any thoughts on dealing with this problem?

    1. This may seem obvious, but have you tried speaking with the library’s digital services (or other modernistical term) librarian to see whether your paid access can be expanded to include the ebooks? It’s not a solution I would find personally satisfying due to my print-based reading habits, but I volunteer at my college’s library and their digital librarians seem eager to help all patrons gain access. Their budget depends upon use statistics, and you would be helping them.

      1. Dear Arnie

        Many thanks. I omitted to say that I had already asked about this, but the answer was no; it would lead to an affordable hike in the publishers’ license fees.

        The fee I already pay allows me to borrow hard-copy books, but readers who don’t want to borrow have always been able to come in off the street and read books and journals for free. So, in some respects, access to information for independent scholars is going backwards as well as forwards.

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