Paper to People

May 18, 2020

For weeks now, we’ve sheltered in place. No big deal, I figured when this began— I usually work from my house anyway. But I was in a digging phase, elbow-deep in research for my current project. I’d visited multiple libraries, poured over history books, and scrolled through 75-year-old documents on microfiche. I’d scoured listings of municipal, provincial and federal archives, ordering files that promised to fill in the facts I needed. And then everything ground to a halt. Libraries closed. Archives suspended my file requests. Thankfully, I’d already gathered a lot of information. I had enough scans to organize, articles to read, and notes to make to keep me busy for a while. I welcomed the chance to let their details seep into my psyche and begin fermenting.

There was just one problem. Holes. No one (at least no one I know) gets every scrap of necessary information from the first cast of the nets. And I’m an obsessive detail hound. One missing fact can send me wandering down dead ends for days. But try as I might, I couldn’t find any way around the country-wide mid-March shutdowns. Thwarted, I sat imagining those archives, shelf after shelf of crucial resources sitting abandoned and useless. I tried to start writing, sidestepping the little facts I didn’t yet know. But I hadn’t hit “critical mass” yet. I just wasn’t ready yet. So I kept poking, looking for ways in.

Online I found a small, distant library that specialized in one aspect of my topic. With nothing to lose, I asked a question via the contact form on the site. The very next day I got a reply! The operations manager didn’t have his collection at his fingertips, but his subject knowledge was enough to steer me in the right direction. Then, I queried an online collector who miraculously provided the very details I needed about some obscure 1940s equipment. Another victory!

Encouraged, I kept going. I made more online queries and asked acquaintances for possible contacts. A tentative question on a local social media page resulted in a reply… leading to more messages and more answers, to phone calls and fascinating tangents, until suddenly I was filling in gaps, not from traditional archival documents, but primary sources, folks who knew the people in my story and had lived through the events I was researching. And, yes, most writing projects do involve a handful of interviews, but this was so much more than that. A lawyer friend digitally introduced me to relevant attorneys and judges; an armchair historian connected me to community elders.

After years of staring mostly at words on paper, I suddenly find myself learning solely from living, breathing sources of information — people. It’s thrilling, and not a turn of events that I’d expected. As horrible as this pandemic is, it has given me one gift: a better appreciation of people as the holders of our history.