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Tutor profile: Kathryn S.

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Kathryn S.
Archivist, Librarian, Writer, and History Teacher
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Questions

Subject: Writing

TutorMe
Question:

How can I get started with writing historical fiction?

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Kathryn S.
Answer:

There are several steps to getting started with historical fiction. 1. Decide on your time period and how your story fits into it. Will it follow historical facts closely or divert from them? 2. Research the period. Read all you can about it, however, don't get too lost in the weeds. The internet can give you a broad overview, but you'll also want to check out academic books and primary sources like letters, diaries, and photographs. Look for details of everyday life to add to your story. Think about how your characters are affected by historical events and how life was lived at the time of your setting. You may want to contact an archivist or historian to get more information. 3. Read other works of historical fiction or watch movies and documentaries in your time period to get a feel for the history and details. You may want to compare these novels and films to the research you've done to see how other writers have handled the same era. 4. Create a historical timeline and an outline of your story to make sure you are getting your chronology right. However, keep the story front and center. You can change things around if it doesn't fit your story; after all, it is fiction. Don't focus so much on the details that the story is lost or becomes tedious. 5. Be careful with inventing dialog and stories about real people. It happens in fiction quite frequently, but be prepared for blowback from historians and relatives and friends of the historical figure. 6. Start writing and have fun!

Subject: Library and Information Science

TutorMe
Question:

What are the best online databases and systems for starting archival research?

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Kathryn S.
Answer:

Newspapers Digitized newspaper databases are a complete gold mine for information about the past. A terrific free one is Chronicling America at the Library of Congress, although most of the newspapers available are from before the 1930s. They are adding new pages to it every day. Other databases like ProQuest and Newspapers.com will charge a hefty individual subscription fee but you can also use them for free at your local public or academic library. Wikipedia maintains an extensive list of digitized newspapers and databases. Every town in American in pretty much every era had at least one newspaper, if not several, and they are full of not just factual, hard news, but also great local gossip. Genealogy I probably don’t need to tell you about Ancestry.com, but it and other genealogical databases are definitely worth a whirl. These databases can be incredibly complex and difficult to search, so head to your public library to use it for free and ask your local genealogy librarian how to use it. WorldCat Did you know that there is a centralized, global library database that you can search for any book at any library? It’s called WorldCat and it’s been around for decades, maintained by OCLC (Online Library Computer Center). Library catalogers use it to download catalog records for popular books into their own systems and upload records for their own unique materials. If you’re looking for a rare book or an archival collection you think might exist out there, this should be your first stop. If you need a book that’s not at your local library, ask your local librarian about interlibrary loan, a service whereby librarians can have books from other libraries shipped to your library for you to use, sometimes at the library only, and you will likely be charged a fee. You can also get copies of articles from obscure journals and magazines this way. ArchiveGrid Every catalog record for an archival collection in WorldCat is tagged as such. You can limit your search in WorldCat to archival collections, but OCLC also harvests these records into a separate, prettier database called ArchiveGrid, which is just a few years old and not widely known to researchers yet. Search ArchiveGrid and you can see amazing connections between collections. It is terrific for collocating the work of one person that may be scattered in many different archives across the country, as correspondence and other material often is. If a cataloger has included in the record lots of subject headings that accurately convey the people, places and topics a collection covers, they will show up and be linked in ArchiveGrid. The main page also includes a map of local archives near you, which you can click on to see what collections are available at each one (often in the thousands). Each listing in ArchiveGrid links out to the archives — sometimes to just the main website but often directly to the finding aid of that collection. However, it doesn’t search across the text of all the finding aids out there at different archives. Such a database is just a glimmer in the eye of archivists at this point. Finding Aids What is a finding aid? This is a term used often in archives that confuses researchers. A finding aid is a document that includes a summary and inventory or box listing of an archival collection. It is not a catalog record, although the finding aid is often linked from the catalog record about the collection. For decades, archivists have argued about the best way to describe manuscript and photograph collections, which are notorious for how unique and different they each can be (cataloging books, which are one “thing” and have standardized components, is fairly simple in comparison). Take twenty archivists and ask them to organize and create a finding aid for the same collection and you’ll get twenty drastically different finding aids. A collection can be one box of material or thousands. A finding aid can be extremely detailed or a quick and dirty just-get-it-out-there rough pass. It usually describes the collection as a whole (a “scope and content” note), a biography of the person or family or history of the organization, the series and sub-series (or how the collection has been organized, often by format, chronology or topic) and lists the box numbers, folder numbers, folder titles, and date range for each folder, which can contain one to hundreds of pieces of paper or photographs inside. You can see what a subjective, mixed bag it can all be. Researchers are at the mercy of archivists and how they describe, or don’t describe, their collections. Archives are like a box of chocolates, I like to say. You’ll never know what you’re going to get, even with a very detailed finding aid. Archivists will tell you in the finding aid that the collection includes correspondence, and perhaps summarize who it’s to and from and the content in very vague terms if you’re lucky. But they’re not going to tell you what Robert Browning wrote to Elizabeth Barrett on March 3, 1847. That’s for you to find out on your research trip. The way these finding aids are written and shared has been drastically changed by technology, and often in fits and starts. Many archives still have paper finding aids that were typed up before computers and have never been converted or scanned. They also have electronic documents, sometimes in in older, obsolete formats, and spreadsheets that live only on the archives’ internal servers and only staff can access. Most archives will not put a finding aid up online unless it has been reviewed by a supervisor or a committee and deemed acceptable (and no one can quite agree on what that means). Hence, many finding aids languish in draft form and are not made publicly available for years or decades. In the early 2000s, archivists came up with an encoding schema called Encoded Archival Description, a sort of html for finding aids. Many archives have spent considerable funding and staff time converting and creating new finding aids that are EAD compliant, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the finding aid is easily searchable or accessible to the general public. Finding Aid Databases Each archive usually has a way of searching across all of its finding aids. Sometimes this is within the library’s larger catalog, sometimes it’s a standalone database. Thoroughly scour the website of any archive you’re interested in — the link to search finding aids may be completely buried, it may use some terminology you’re unfamiliar with, or the database might be called by an acronym that means nothing to you. You may have to call the archive to ask about how to search to really understand how it works. Many states and regions have built websites for consortia of libraries and archives that host EAD finding aids. The Society of American Archivists maintains a list of these. Archives’ Websites Federal libraries and archives have enormous amounts of material online and their systems can be incredibly difficult to search. Ever search “civil war” on the Library of Congress website? Don’t. You’ll get thousands of hits, many of them useless to you. Each of these large institutions, like LC, the National Archives, and the British Library, will have a search box on its main page, making it seem like you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for with one click. Often these search boxes search the website only, and not the catalog. You may get hits for digitized collections online, which can be incredibly helpful. Interspersed with those hits will be the flotsam and jetsam of old web content. Spend the time to thoroughly explore these websites, figure out where the actual catalog is, and bookmark it. I learned while working at the Library of Congress that although the catalog might have many millions of records, guess what — there are hundreds of other internal-only databases maintained by each of the many reading rooms and divisions, none of them compatible with each other and most of them not online. Don’t even get me started on how difficult the National Archives’ catalog system can be to navigate, with its complex system of record group numbers. Remember that the catalog and websites for these institutions just barely scratches the surface of what is available to see in person, although each are making great strides to migrate data into ideally one system. All of these institutions offer regular research orientation classes in person for those new to research there and some have great guides on how to get started on their websites. If you can find them. Major university archives, especially huge ones like Harvard, can be almost as complex as the Library of Congress. These archives are located within large library systems, and their websites can be equally difficult to navigate. Often there are multiple archives or “special collections,” according to topic or format. There may be separate locations across campus, each with different catalogs or websites, and keeping them straight can be a hurdle. Many universities, in imitation of Google, have implemented one search box on the main library website. It crawls the website, catalog records, and all of the research databases a library subscribes to, meaning you’ll get inundated with scientific journal articles in your list of results. It’s better to search the catalog or a standalone finding aids database if you can find it. What about smaller historical societies and archives? These little guys, usually struggling to get by on a severely limited budget, often get lost among the heavyweights, but they are worth seeking out, especially if you are researching a specific geographic place or local event from the past. State historical societies are state-funded or non-profit organizations that collect personal manuscript collections and other material from the citizens of that state; state archives and libraries, which are often across the street from the state capitol, preserve the records of state agencies and courts. County and city historical societies as well as local history rooms in public libraries always have great untapped collections, although they might not have much information online. A search for historical societies, museums, libraries, and archives on Google maps might bring up a good list of what institutions exist in a certain area, but some of these groups might not even have a physical address; it could just be a loosely run organization with collections stored in odd places like members’ homes. You’ll recognize them by the website that hasn’t been updated in 15 years, hopefully at least the contact info is current. Keeping Track of it All It’s a good idea to keep careful track of what you have searched. There are so many databases and catalogs out there it is easy to forget which ones you have consulted. If you are working on a months or years-long project, keep of track of which database you have searched, your search terms, and the date, since new items are added all the time and it may be worth checking again later (a spreadsheet is great for this). If you find any digitized items to download, or if you have copied and pasted a snippet of text from somewhere, keep careful track with a citation of where it came from, the link, and the date you copied it. Links are always breaking, content is often taken down. It’s common to return to a website just months later to find what was there before has disappeared into the ether. Once you’ve done all this searching, you’ve certainly found everything you need right? Wrong. One of the most glaring assumptions beginning researchers make is that everything listed in the catalog has been digitized and you can “just click on it” to see it. Only a very small fraction of archival material is digitized, online, and searchable. And by searchable, I don’t mean Googleable. Most archives put their digitized content on their own website or on another consortium website (not necessarily the same one with finding aids across a state or region), and it might not be crawled by Google. The Open Education Database maintains a very thorough list of these.

Subject: US History

TutorMe
Question:

What are the origins of the song "We Shall Overcome"?

Inactive
Kathryn S.
Answer:

Although folksingers Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, and Frank Hamilton registered copyright on “We Shall Overcome” in 1960, the song has a long and fascinating history with contributions from many activist-singers. We can trace it back to two separate songs from over a hundred years ago, the lyrics from “I’ll Overcome Some Day” written by the Reverend Charles Tindley in 1903, and the melody from a traditional African American gospel song called “I’ll be All Right.” Pete Seeger remembers in his book, Where Have All the Flowers Gone (Sing Out, 1993), that Zilphia Horton, a folk singer and activist from the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, first heard the song in 1946 when she went to help tobacco workers with a labor strike in Charleston, South Carolina. She was struck by the moving simplicity of it and how one picketer, Lucille Simmons, would sing it very slowly and powerfully. Simmons is credited with changing the lyrics from “I” to “We.” A year later, Horton taught it to Seeger when he came to visit the Highlander Folk School. Horton and Seeger published the song in his newsletter People’s Songs in 1948, although Seeger thinks this published version was incorrect. He notably changed the lyrics from “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome” and also added two new verses including “We’ll walk hand in hand.” He remembers his return to Highlander in 1957, when he met Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Although he knew the words to “We Shall Overcome,” he finally worked out the musical accompaniment to the tune on this visit. Folksingers Guy Carawan and Frank Hamilton changed the rhythm of the song, which helped it spread like wildfire at protests across the country, establishing it as the anthem of the struggle. Later at the Highlander Folk School, Guy Carawan taught the song to a large group of African American college students who came to the school to learn protest music at the “Singing in the Movement” conference in 1960. These students would go on to stage protests in Greensboro, North Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, and many other cities across the South. They called themselves SNCC– the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and established themselves as young radicals who refused to wait for change. As these students endured harassment at the sit-ins, they gained strength through this new song they had learned at Highlander. Seeger, Carawan, and Frank Hamilton were convinced to register the copyright on their version of the song. They donated all of the royalties to a non-profit organization they founded called the We Shall Overcome Fund, which still provides grants “to nurture grassroots efforts within African American communities to use art and activism against injustice.” Years later in his 1972 book, The Incompleat Folk Singer (Simon and Schuster), Seeger admitted that the song had become somewhat passé. His friend Lillian Hellman, the playwright, told him, “What kind of namby-pamby, wishy-washy moaning, always ‘some day, so-o-omeday!’ That has been said for two thousand years.” Seeger asked his friend, the noted singer and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, what she thought of that. She responded, “But still if we said we were going to overcome next week, it would be a little unrealistic. What would we sing the week after next?”

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