Saturday, January 22, 2011

I Found it on the Internet

            That statement often signals careless research and even gullibility. A case in point is the textbook “Our Virginia, Past and Present” recently pulled from many school systems because of historical errors that included the statement that thousands of African American soldiers fought for the South during the Civil War. According to the Washington Post of December 29, “The claim is one often made by Confederate heritage groups but rejected by most mainstream historians. The book's author, Joy Masoff, said at the time that she found references to it during research on the Internet.”

Well, of course, we exclaim. Who does serious research on the Internet?

Well, me, for one.
That’s because the Internet, as I see it, is one giant library in the cloud. In the days when only brick-and-mortar libraries existed, a dubious report of information found in a book would be met with the question, “Do you believe everything you read?”

Hopefully you didn’t. Hopefully you brought some background information to your reading, as well as a bit of judgment and skepticism. That’s even more important on the Internet, where anyone can post whatever he or she pleases -- unlike library books which are chosen by professional librarians.

Research has been on my mind lately not just because of the error-ridden textbooks, but because the rights to my first two books, both historical novels, recently reverted to me, and I decided to give them a going over before having them formatted for the Kindle and other eBook platforms. Last winter, while snowbound for several weeks, I curled up with a warm computer. Besides some minor copy-editing, I spent most of that time online, double-checking my research.

The novels, As Far as Blood Goes (the story of a fugitive slave who becomes a doctor) and A Different Sin (a combined Civil War novel and gay men=s romance), were published in 1988 and 1993 respectively. I’m neither a historian nor Civil War buff, so I had to do a lot of research – nearly all of which took place in the Alexandria, Virginia public libraries.

I was fortunate that the Alexandria Gazette, one of the country’s oldest newspapers, was available on microfilm in the library’s Special Collections, and I spent hours squinting over microfilmed copies from the early 1800’s. (Let me tell you, an ice cream headache has nothing on a microfilm headache.) But hours were also spent wandering aimlessly through library stacks looking for relevant books on black and Civil War history.

Except for newspapers from the times, and a few reprinted memoirs, I relied on history books, not on original documents from those times. But hey, I was writing fiction, not trying to add to the body of historical knowledge. For As Far as Blood Goes I needed first to find out whether it was possible for a black man to have become a doctor in ante-Bellum America -- and yes, there were indeed a handful of African-American physicians at the time -- and then learn enough to know how the events of that time would shape and affect my characters. 

But research in a brick-and-mortar library has its limitations as well. For example, Michael, the protagonist of As Far as Blood Goes, is whipped as punishment for teaching his friends – also slaves – to read. I knew that teaching slaves to read was against the law, but I wasn’t sure what the penalty was. The card catalog doesn’t zero in on such details. I don’t remember if I consulted the reference librarian – who might have located the legal codes from 1831. Instead, I made the assumption that since 39 lashes was a typical punishment for infractions by slaves in much of the South, it would be what Michael would be subjected to.

When I checked my research last winter, I didn’t go to the library. Instead I brought up Google search. Within five minutes, I had found more than one history that explored this topic, including The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice: Its Distinctive Features Shown by Its Statutes, Judicial Decisions, and Illustrative Facts, by William Goodell, which devotes a chapter to the prohibition of education.  

This history quoted the relevant Virginia law, word for word. And I discovered that while I was correct that it was illegal to teach slaves reading or writing, and to assemble for such purpose – as Michael and his friends did – I was incorrect as to the exact penalty, which called on an officer of the law “to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.” Still a terrible punishment, but not quite as severe.

I’m working on a new historical novel now – this one taking place on New York’s Lower East Side among Jewish immigrant families like my those of my grandparents. But family stories go only so far in fleshing out the era. So if you ask me where I found this fact about laws concerning tenement buildings or that one about women’s fashions, or even when bobby pins were invented, I’ll tell you straight out:

I found it on the Internet.

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