Every freelancer has some version—probably multiple versions—of this story: A current event screamed for my unique perspective. I wrote a succinct, witty, flawless piece, submitted it to the perfectly-matched publication, and… it drowned in the slush pile while the event came and went.
Because many of us do not have a specific editorial home, it’s risky for freelancers to devote precious writing time to news-pegged articles. Instead of rush-submitting to-the-moment pieces, we should use archival research to write timeless freelancing. These articles are less susceptible to changes in the news cycle and more able to withstand a string of rejections before acceptance.
The key to writing timeless freelancing is doing good archival research. Instead of linking to news articles that will become stale in a week or two, introduce old materials that help you make new points.
In Part IV of this Creative Research Series, we’ll explore how to write about and use archives.
Digital book archives
Although even the mention of “archive” may call to mind tweed-jackets and half-moon spectacles, you don’t need a PhD to do good archival work. Timeless freelancing only requires a little creativity and an internet connection.
Google Books is a great starting place for beginning researchers. Conduct a simple search for a topic (cookbook, joke book, beauty) and then use the drop-down menu next to “Any time” to narrow your search to a specific time period. This strategy can help you unearth cookbooks, joke books, or treatises on the art of fascinating, all from the 1800s.
The Internet Archive, which houses digital materials from many different libraries, is also a great source for timeless freelancers. Try limiting the Internet Archive’s book collection by year to see a wide range of options. That approach led me to Thomas Phaer’s The Boke of Chyldren, which inspired this piece about what parents have had in common over the past five centuries.
Public library websites
You don’t need to be a resident of a city to make use of its public library. Many cities offer digital access to parts of their special collections. The Boston Public Library has a fantastic map collection. The Seattle Public Library’s sawdust collection is an eclectic mix of materials. The New York Public Library’s menu collection inspired my piece about early kids’ menus, but could also inspire timeless freelancing about trendy ingredients, transliteration, or menu typography.
There are countless public libraries, all of which have wonderful, frequently under-explored resources. The basic strategy for finding these collections is simple: search for “[city name] public library special collections.” You’ll be surprised and delighted by what you find.
Of course, you needn’t limit yourself to public libraries. Many private libraries provide digital access to at least part of their collections. Another simple search strategy will help you find those libraries: “library [topic].” For example, searching for “library medical history” will lead you to the National Library of Medicine and the Wellcome Collection, both of which have fascinating image collections.
Your local library
Whether it’s because of less-aggressive weeding practices or because of an employee’s passion for a subject, many library branches have unexpectedly great collections on surprising topics that people generally overlook. The Public Library of Cincinnati, for example, has a surprisingly robust collection of decades-old books about hosting children’s birthday parties. The books can’t match Pinterest for party-planning, but they do offer a wonderful glimpse into parties over the decades, which has helped me answer timeless freelancing questions about kids’ birthday parties.
In addition to old books, many libraries also have collections of old things, like cake pans, seeds, or tools. Check out the Library of Things for interesting ideas about what to borrow. To see what kinds of hidden treasures your own public library might have, go to the circulation desk or send an email to ask what kinds of special or large collections might be available to you.
Your own house
You may not think of yourself as an archivist, but if you have a few collections of things not easily findable online, you’ve got an archive. Do you have a collection of rare DVDs? You can spin gold out of the commentary. Do you have a collection of old family photos? They might inspire a mix of personal essay and oral history about some of the more special items in your collection. Do you have your grandmother’s cookbook collection? Maybe there’s a recipe you think deserves a comeback, because it—like your archive-based writing—is timeless.