This post originally began as a tangent to a post about another topic. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my tangent would detract from what I wanted to get across there – and to figure out that this was worth its own post.
For an amateur, access to reasonably priced books is often a significant limiting factor. I know when I first started reading history it was a bit of a jolt transitioning from buying $6.95 paperback fiction to $20-$30 non-fiction. Eventually I got used to that enough to where I frequently buy books in the $60-$80 range – it has to be a very useful book though.
This brings us to the world of the Inter Library Loan (ILL). Many if not most of you are at least somewhat aware of this so this is more of a reminder. Use it. I’ve been astonished at what our little (town of 15,000 people) public library has been able to acquire for me. I’ve received fairly specialized books housed at Notre Dame, Indiana University, Taylor University, Oberlin College, etc. And the fee is next to nothing. So if you see a book and buying it is beyond your means, talk to your library.
What many people don’t seem to be aware of are subscription services your local library may have. I’ve told several people to check and find out if their library subscribes to JSTOR – a subscription service which provides access to many journals, in digital form. They are frequently surprised to find their library has it. If your library doesn’t, you may want to try finding several people interested in having journal access beyond what the library subscribes to – these don’t have to be history people either – and talk to the library. If they see there’s an interest in the service they may be willing to purchase it – or if you get enough people, ask the library if they’d consider subscribing if you can find enough donors to cover the cost. There are other services besides JSTOR – Project MUSE is one I’m familiar with. I’m not up on the inner workings of all this because through my “nothistory” job at a university I have access to all sorts of stuff through the library and they make it easy, but it’s amazing how many good public libraries offer many of these same services.
And finally, since I mentioned university libraries, if you want additional access to resources, ask the college or university you graduated from about alumni library accounts. Depending on the type of institution, they may not have many of the books you may be looking for but they often have JSTOR or other journal access. I try to keep up on things by looking through 5 journals on a regular basis – Speculum, Journal of Late Antiquity, Early Medieval Europe, the American Historical Review and the English Historical Review. I subscribe to Speculum (access through JSTOR isn’t available for the most recent 5 years) and JLA, and access the others through the University. And often something from another journal is cited, such as the article I mentioned in my Rich Peasant/Poor Peasant post which I can access through JSTOR.
Many institutions of higher education offer alumni accounts. Sometimes you may not receive all the bells and whistles of faculty and student accounts but it is absolutely worth asking about. And in this day and age of digital information, even if you’re physically thousands of miles away from your library, you can still access many of the resources.