Inquire Within: Fashion Research at Your Public Library


Part 3 in an ongoing series.

How is it coming, that question of yours on the history of dress, or fashion theory, or a designer of years past? Having dredged the web, your frame of reference has hopefully taken form. You have some keywords, some context, and a direction in which you would like to take this search. I suppose you should be off to the library?

If you don’t yet have a library card, remember to check your public library’s website or make a call and determine what you will need to get one (likely just photo identification and proof of residency). For an effective library visit, nose through the website a bit further and see if you can get an idea of services available. When are opening hours? Will you head to the closest neighborhood branch or would it be worth taking a trip to the main branch for quick access to a larger collection?

While a Reference or Information Desk in a cavernous, silent room of books and computers can be intimidating, assume that it is someone’s job there to help you—to help anyone and everyone—with research. This interaction should be a conversation, and it may take time. It could take the form of a librarian advising or guiding you in your search or doing some further research for you and getting back to you, if necessary.

Be ready to clarify what it is that you’re looking for, and remember that some information might not be where you expect it to be. A good rule of thumb is to focus on the information you are looking for as opposed to specific resources (ask for a book on shoe history and there may not be anything, but explain your search on the stiletto in the 1980s and the research options may actually broaden). If you are hoping to find multiple resources, only want scholarly articles, or just need some graphics, say so from the start. A librarian should be like a guide and a teacher—they definitely don’t know everything, but they are resourceful. If you are told no, there’s nothing, be persistent and ask what they suggest your next step be. A good researcher (and a helpful librarian) will assume that there is an answer. It just might take some work to find it.

If you find yourself searching the library’s catalog on your own, know that searching probably functions differently there than it does in a search engine. Pull out your list of keywords and synonyms and try them all (for example clothing, costume, dress, and fashion, or as simple as ladies’ clothing instead of women’s), and remember to broaden or narrow your search (nothing on Mary Quant specifically? Try a general fashion encyclopedia). The more you use the Dewey Decimal System (or other classification system), the more you will learn its rules and oddities, including how it may fool you or work to your advantage. Books on one subject may be together on the shelf or in quite different areas. Books on corsetry could just as easily reside in the 390s (clothing and dress), feminism (early 300s) or engineering (620s). Clothing, costume, and fashion bisect every subject known to man, after all! When browsing an area, remember not to rely on what you see on the shelf, since items may be elsewhere (or checked out). It never hurts to ask, and a librarian’s search could turn up checked out items you could put on hold or any number of titles your search didn’t find.

If catalogs frustrate you, use other search tools (Amazon, Google Books, Worn’s book reviews) to identify books you are interested in and ask if your library can help you access what you need. Many libraries are members of borrowing consortiums or interlibrary loan networks, meaning they may be able to get you whatever your heart desires from a neighboring town or even academic libraries in other countries, sometimes for free.

Your library card also equips you with a number of resources that are easy to miss: free access to extensive databases of articles, papers, and graphics. E-book checkouts are becoming the norm for those who prefer to read on a device. Even small libraries generally provide databases that hold the full text of academic papers, professional journals, and popular magazines. Some of the big players you might find on a database list are EBSCO, Gale, or Proquest. My rural, small-town library allows me to read Fashion Theory journal and Oxford’s Textile journal from home. Large library systems may provide access to databases specific to the arts or fashion (Berg Fashion Library, ARTstor or The Vogue Archive).

Database searching can take some getting used to, but their contents are research gold. If your search results are spot on but do not link to full text, again: talk to a librarian and see what your options are to access these from other libraries. Also remember to use what you find to take you further: did the author of this paper cite sources that would be helpful in your search, too? Any new keywords to write down for further searching?

The library is what you make it. Persistent curiosity is the key to taking full advantage of the resources here. It might not be quick or easy at first, but it will be worthwhile. Don’t forget to bring a bag to haul home your finds—while that thesis might be in electronic format, it may be hard to leave without a few magazines, films, and photography tomes to boot! Once you have truly exhausted all options and your public library feels like a second home, you can look in the direction of academic and special libraries and archives. More on that in the next Inquire Within.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Research Online

text by Christy Shannon Smirl
graphic by Rachel Stevens

2 thoughts on “Inquire Within: Fashion Research at Your Public Library

  1. LOVE this series! Coming from a librarian (who also loves fashion), you have me cheering at sentences like “Pull out your list of keywords and synonyms” and “assume that it is someone’s job there to help you—to help anyone and everyone—with research.” Yes, we librarians are here to help! Great tips on the breadth and scope of research materials and resources out there, and I’m so glad you’re delving into academic and special libraries next (that was my next suggestion, especially libraries at schools with fashion design/merchandising courses).

  2. I second Jen’s comments! I absolutely love these posts. They were one of the reasons I got so excited about Worn, and decided to apply for an internship. What great tips!

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