When I was working on that book I wrote a while back, I did most of my research in archives and libraries. I loved it - it’s wonderful to experience the texture and smell of documents that have been touched by someone 250 years ago, to imagine the circumstances in which some love-lorn, happy, depressed or bored person was writing – whether they were secretly scribbling a letter and hoping their mother didn't look over their shoulder, or whether they were falling asleep at work, writing down the last records of the day and looking forward to going home for tea.
This time around, though, I have the internet, and boy does this make life easier. To some people, online research sounds plain lazy – surely most of the web is cobbled together by a few pasty 13-year old American boys while they trawl The Google for pictures of boobs?
Living next door to the British Library and having no other commitments might make 'proper' research a doddle, but few writers live in this ideal world. Some are working 12-hour shifts, some are looking after elderly relatives, some have disabilities that make public transport a nightmare, some have toddlers climbing over us all day... and all night. No matter how committed we are, we can't always drop everything to go and Be a Writer.
I'm not advocating having a glance at Wikipedia and taking it as The Truth, but I am hugely enthusiastic about the digital resources available. Here are a mere five ways I use the web for research:
1.Digitised facsimiles of original books or documents. Google Books and the Internet Archive come in very handy. Project Gutenberg also allows you to download free transcribed ebooks of public domain works and there are iPhone apps to give you access to these on the go.
2.Academic papers. I use PubMed Central a lot, but that's just my area of interest - there are many more, and Intute lists reputable sources. Google Scholar lets you search a huge number of articles in all fields. Some services require registration, and others make you pay to download a paper, but this could still work out cheaper than travelling to a library at the other end of the country.
3.Services from the local library authority. This varies depending on where you live, but your library might subscribe to resources that are only available to institutions rather than individuals, and let you access them from home by logging in with your library card number. For example, I have free access to the British Library’s 19th-century newspapers archive this way.
4.Checking the location and availability of documents or books you might want to visit 'in person', or easily requesting an inter-library loan.
5.Viewing historical images. Sometimes a painting or photo can inform or inspire you far more than text. While I use Wellcome Images and the US National Library of Medicine quite a bit, there are more general pictures at the National Gallery, the Mary Evans Picture Library, the LIFE archive, Wikimedia Commons... and plenty of others.
These are only a minuscule proportion of what I use, never mind what's available. I'd love to hear about your favourite online resources too.