Writers and Editors (Pat McNees's blog)
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Where does Dave Robicheaux go for information?

August 22, 2009

Tags: libraries, fiction

“I long ago became convinced that the most reliable source for arcane and obscure and seemingly unobtainable information does not lie with government or law enforcement agencies,” says James Lee Burke’s hero, Dave Robicheaux, in Last Car for Elysian Fields (page 102) . “Apparently neither the CIA nor the military intelligence apparatus inside the Pentagon had even a slight inkling of the Soviet Union’s impending collapse, right up to the moment the Kremlin’s leaders were trying to cut deals for their memoirs with New York publishers. Or if a person really wishes a lesson in the subjective nature of official information, he can always call the IRS and ask for help with his tax forms, and then call back a half hour later and ask the same questions to a different representative.

“So where do you go to find a researcher who is intelligent, imaginative, skilled in the use of computers, devoted to discovering the truth, and knowledgeable about science, technology, history, and literature, and who usually works for dirt and gets credit for nothing?

“After lunch I drove to the city library on Main and asked the reference librarian to find what she could on Junior Crudup….”

I second the motion. I’m deep into writing a nonfiction book that has required tons of research, and beyond their obvious function helping with research the Montgomery County (MD) library system that I use has helped me preserve my sanity, with an online reserve system that functions beautifully, so that when I need a book on tape, a DVD to fill the slot while I wait for my next Netflix selection, or a book for my book club, I just go online. I love that the libraries are now full of people—clicking away on computers, yes, but also filled on Saturdays with English speakers tutoring other adults in English, with groups meeting for free in the basement, with magazine readers catching up on this weeks news and features or browsing to find a book to catch their fancy, with parents and children checking out this week’s armload of children’s books.

The year I moved to the DC area I was asked by a fellow writer to do some research on a novel he was writing, set in Italy in the 1860s. He wanted me to find what I could on sex and food in Italy in the 1860s and to see if I could learn the layout of a cruise liner in the 1930s. I had only a slim idea where to begin; the eyes of the librarians at the Library of Congress lit up when I said what my assignments were. They put me on the right track immediately.

Librarians of the world, we salute you!

And oh yes, as always with Burke, Last Car for Elysian Fields is great escape, a good puzzler, and fine writing.


"Our whole American way of life is a great war of ideas, and librarians are the arms dealers selling weapons to both sides."
~James Quinn

Comments

  1. September 6, 2009 1:22 PM EDT
    James Lee Burke and Dave Robicheaux deliver another tribute to librarians in The Tin Roof Blowdown, the 16th in his Robicheaux series--this time to a research librarian who, credibly, goes way beyond the call of duty for most research librarians. In addition to the great local color and case studies in people with anger management problems, this novel also suggests the greed, incompetence, and unfairly distributed tragedy that followed Hurricane Katrina.
    - PM
  2. May 29, 2010 5:10 PM EDT
    I can never praise libraries enough, it appears. Today I went to pick up a novel on CD (The Help by Kathryn Stockett), whichI'd reserved at the Davis Library (in the wonderful Montgomery County library system),and in the parking lot an envelope containing four checks I was going to deposit fell out of my purse. Apparently someone picked up the envelope and brought it inside. When I stopped back by the library to see if someone had found my checks, I learned they had been turned in and librarian Marilyn Reside had placed them in the library safe. They retrieved it for me, smiling. When I got home, I found both an e-mail from librarian Kenneth Nero, telling me the envelope was being held for me, and a phone message. This is one set of civil servants that deserve more of out taxes than they are getting. And, as always, that library was packed with people making good use of all the facilities. And I have a good book to read.
    - PM