Historical Research in the Digital Age

Yesterday, I spent the morning reading sixteenth-century Spanish reports of their Philippine colonial endeavor on my Kindle. Yes, Emma Helen Blair & James Alexander Robertson’s The Philippine Islands, 1493 – 1898 is digitized (at least partially). It was the first thing I downloaded when I got my e-reader last year. Facetime: By evening, I was sitting with other bibliophiles, artists, and writers in a real living room with people lovingly handling the binding and pages of  books written in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English with fine illustrations and gilded edges. One was 100 years old; the dust on the spine was real.

Ten years ago, cheery and beautiful YA historical novelist Harriette Gillem Robinet was the first person I heard urge writers to use Inter-library loan to borrow books from the Library of Congress. What freedom of the mind! To be able to borrow books from the national library where they collect titles you can’t find in your city or state libraries. When you’re researching something as seemingly remote (to some) and obscure (to others?) as the 16th century Philippines, it’s brilliant to have the LOC at your fingertips. Now, they’re online and you can search their catalogs. I drool.

Today, I’m in the final push…to really lock-in what I know and what I don’t know about my historical characters. So, for the last 2 weeks, it’s been a headlong rush into titles that are found regionally in Cebu – which is fabulous, except that I live in Chicago.  What can a fictionist in the diaspora do?

This morning, my fingertips took me to World Cat (World Catalog) which purportedly has 1.5 billion items online. Google Books allows you to search inside many of its digitized books (“millions”). Refdoc.fr in France allows you to buy articles in academic journals and have them sent either via snailmail or electronically.

The state of human knowledge is changing every hour. For me, way out here in the Midwest, so far from the Philippines, it’s a godsend to be able to access the work of experts in the fields of Philippine anthropology, history, and literature.

Cutting edge technology in the service of history…who knew?


Koan # 10. Winter Meadow, A Place to Grieve

For me, the natural world is a place of healing & freedom. It is messy, ever changing, and holds so many spiritual lessons. I run to the woods when I’m sad…I hike through the woods when I’m excited to be alive.

Recently, our Lola Mading (Grandmother Mading) crossed-over to the Other Side. She was 94 years old and is very much missed. This prose-poem/koan rose up inside me on one of my morning tromps through my local woods near the DesPlaines River in Illinois.


Lola is dead.

Snowflakes float, drift, gently fall

onto the bare, white meadow

where bootprints, ski tracks,

deer hooves, dog paws

make trails of gray spots

across frozen ground.

What signs of ourselves do we leave behind?

Lola Mading sang with her barkada,

in pointed straw hats,

a posse’s hymn of planting rice,

blazing suns, and stooped backs,

they who never relished snow.

I let memories of her wash over me

as my boots crunched ice.

Snow kisses the ground,

a hush, a silence,

shrouding runners’ footprints.

Soon, all will be covered —

and can we say we really lived?

My lola, grandma glittering

in gold and black gowns,

cheap fabrics richly sown

by her own gnarled hands.

The footprints she leaves behind

cannot be seen.

They show a woman,

two steps to the left,

a front hop,

skip, wiggle, groove

shaking at her Senior Prom

to make tracks as fast as she can.

Snowflakes glitter,

crystalline white and blue rainbows,

across the expanse of the meadow.

White-tailed deer, chocolate Labrador,

Cooper’s hawk, Filipina American woman,

Snow will cover all of our tracks one day,

making room for new life

each change of season.