There are plenty of things to miss during the pandemic—family, live music, etc. We all have the universal things we miss, and we all have the individual things we miss. I miss the library. The bleak, post-Christmas winter is my favorite time to camp out in the quiet spaces of Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Main Branch and fill notebook pages with research. Which is why I’m excited to see that the library will finally be open for browsing and limited services starting February 8.
Even during the library’s closure, CML’s website has been extremely helpful to me, especially early in the pandemic when I wanted to write an article on how Columbus dealt with Spanish Influenza more than a century ago. But there are certain things in the library that just can’t be found without being there in person—often for the simple reason there is so much more in this world that hasn’t been digitized than you might think.
CML has been particularly essential to researching my current work in progress, Arch City—a murder mystery set in during the Grand Army of the Republic reunion, which took place in Columbus in September of 1888. The problem with conducting research on what Columbus was like during that one particular week in 1888 Columbus is that Columbus is simply not a famous enough city to have that information readily available online. The only solution for a writer who wants to do deep and specific research on such an un-famous place is the local library.
Through the CML website, I was able to obtain editions of the Columbus Dispatch (or the Columbus Evening Dispatch, as it was called back then) for each day of the week I’m writing about. There I found details about where General William Tecumseh Sherman dined one evening, what music the bands played, which thieves were arrested for which crimes, which streetcar line would take you to see the Columbus Senators play baseball, and so on. The advertisements along the sides of the newspapers gave me an idea of what businesses my characters might be shopping at or passing by on their way about the city.
By far the favorite item I found in these papers was a note in the international section—“Another Horrible Murder Committed By The Midnight Assassin In London.” Annie Chapman had just been murdered by the man who would come to be called Jack the Ripper.
But while the library’s website has provided so much in the way of broad strokes, and probably will continue to do so, I’ve found that the local history archives at CML’s Main Branch is essential for filling the gaps I need to fill. From the extensive volumes of annual city reports, I was able to find rosters of the police and detective force in 1888, lists of yearly murders and other crimes, the locations of each police box in the city.
An example of how influential this information could be on narrative is when I wanted to write about John E. Murphy, the superintendent of the Columbus Police at the time of the GAR Reunion. At first, in my online research, all I could find was his name and some mention of his activities and movements during the week I’m writing about. But Murphy is just a minor character, so I started writing his scenes with just a basic description from my own imagination.
But then as it happened, I found an old article about Superintendent Murphy in the local history archives at Main Library, one that included not only biographical information about the man, but his accomplishments in Columbus, his subsequent leadership of the U.S. Secret Service office in St. Louis, and even an illustration. From these facts, I was able to completely re-write the chapters he appeared in, writing a lengthier and much more accurate description for Murphy. From just one stroke of research luck at Main Library and I was able to more fully draw a character.
So I’m happy to hear things are finally looking good enough that the library might be open, even on just a limited basis. I’ll still miss a lot of things from before the pandemic, but being able to sit in the quiet of Main Library and dig up some valuable little kernels of information will feel just a little more normal.