I confess--I’m a digital hoarder. I attribute it to all the research I do to write historical fiction. Over the years, I’ve taken notes from countless books to ensure I’m accurately portraying any historical figures, cuisine, and cultures I’m writing about in a novel. There’s a delicate balance in historical fiction. The amount of research needed to move comfortably within a narrative is tremendous, and as a writer, you don’t want to spool out endless facts just because you found dozens of fascinating details in your sources. Soot houses dotting the medieval Irish landscape may provide just the right touch of authenticity, but an expository paragraph on their construction and functionality bogs down the narrative.
In recent years, the ability to find free, high quality resources online has been a tremendous boon for people across the world. The last week of October is International Open Access Week, and it celebrates a revolutionary movement in the Digital Age. Harvard University has played a central role in making its research freely available worldwide through the DASH Project, which launched in 2009. They encourage testimonials around the globe to show how the resources they’ve amassed have benefitted people. Peter Stuber, director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communications, offers his book on Open Access for free on the DASH site. It’s a great overview of this new movement and how its uses are limitless.
How has it helped me as an author? I love to study the Ancient Near East. Reliable resources that cover Mesopotamia’s history thoroughly have been frustratingly far and few between. Works published in the mid-twentieth century have proven to be incomplete understandings of Sumerian culture. Through DASH, I now have access to the newest research done by faculty and students at Harvard, among other institutions as more and more universities adopt the Open Access model. Satellite photos taken during the Cold War reveal ancient trade routes in the Middle East that were previously unknown, and are freely available. The world I write about now feels much more complete.
Open Access goes beyond the DASH model. The Digital Public Library of America was conceived after a conference on the history of publishing at Radcliffe in 2010. It hosts more than 8 million sources online from museums, libraries, and archives. From Prohibition to the history of social movements in the US, it serves as an amazing resource, and authors can find a wealth of information to help develop their works. Additionally, OpenCulture.com has films, audio files, courses, books, and more archived online. While writing a short story about Mesopotamia for a literary journal, listening to a professor read the Epic of Gilgamesh in the original Akkadian language was incredibly inspirational, and help me infuse the story with a bit more atmosphere that I may not have otherwise been able to include.
These educational sources help everyone--not just people who write historical fiction. New research on social sciences, medicine, and technology and beyond is available for writers of any genre and style. If you add anything to your writer’s toolbox, bookmark these sites and spread the word.