Four Approaches to Local History Research With Special Collections

It’s research paper time at Virginia Tech! And when it comes to research papers relating to local (and many other) topics, a visit to Special Collections is indispensable. Let’s examine the different ways that Special Collections can help you with a research paper, using Blacksburg’s Lyric Theater–a perennial favorite among students–as an example. (If you don’t need advice on research methods, you can just look at the pretty pictures below!)

The So-Called Independent Approach. You know that you don’t need Special Collections because everything you need for any research paper can be found online. A simple Google search on “lyric theater blacksburg history” takes you to the Lyric’s website, and you find some very useful information there. Soon, though, you realize that, even with some judicious padding, big fonts, and wide margins, you’re not going to have enough for a paper. You go back to Google and run across “The Lyric Theatre: A Look Back at the Beginnings.” The page is a little dated, but it links to a lot of helpful information and images. Now you’ve got a lot more for your paper. Surprise! You’ve just been helped by Special Collections! The problem with this approach is that the Lyric is one of only a few such pages that we’ve put together, and helpful as this page might be, it’s probably not enough for your needs.

The Not-Quite-Novice Approach. You know from experience that the library is a vital starting point for any research project but have never been to Special Collections. You go to the library’s catalog and do a keyword search on blacksburg lyric theater, which pulls just one hit, for The Lyric Resource Notebook, compiled by Stephen Michener in 1994. You visit Special Collections, find a few things in the Resource Notebook to add to your paper, and leave, mistakenly thinking that you’ve found all that the department has on the topic.

The Experienced Approach. You know that Special Collections holds more than books and that you can find these materials through links on the Special Collections website. Through a link on the homepage, you search “lyric” on the Virginia Heritage database and learn that Special Collections also holds a Lyric-related folder in the Vertical Files. You ask for this and are given a folder thick with newsclippings and other materials relating to all areas of the Lyrics history, from its construction, to its renovation, to the recent conversion to digital projection. Another link takes you to the Imagebase, and a search there finds more than a dozen Lyric-related photographs. Digging deeply into the department’s Manuscript Collections Guide, you find that we hold the papers of Smithey & Boynton, the architectural firm that designed the theater building, and that the collection includes the firm’s sketches, building plans, and architectural detail drawings for the Lyric.

The Savvy Approach. You know that Special Collections holds some things that simply aren’t on the public radar and that the archivists are on hand to help you find these things. Using the Savvy Approach, you ask for help. With a simple “What else do you have on the Lyric?” you learn that Special Collections has a substantial collection of monthly calendar-programs that were mailed to local residents from the 1930s through the 1970s.

In addition to showing what was playing on specific dates, the calendars also provide other details on the theater’s operation.

You’re also shown a large collection of lobby cards distributed to the theater’s patrons. The cards all seem to date from the silent film era and are presented in a wide array of shapes and sizes, revealing something not only of the era’s films but also of its marketing techniques.

Because they’ve not yet been processed, these two collections aren’t often used, and they can give your paper an interesting and unusual angle, one that you’d not had if you hadn’t asked a simple question.

So there you have four approaches to a local history research paper, and Special Collections provided some help to each. If you think that it seemed like too much effort to find everything the department has on a single topic, we agree. Although our materials are much more easily accessible to researchers than they were, say, 20 years ago, we’re constantly striving to make things easier, so that searching in several different places or relying on an archivist’s memory to find everything won’t be necessary. Until that distant day when everything is retrievable through a single search, though, remember to use the Savvy Approach and ask us for help. That’s what we’re here for.