For features or columns of 1,000 words or longer, you will almost certainly need to do additional research before your interviews in order to broaden your base of information. The interviewee knows you have done your homework when you have a good preliminary grasp of the subject. You begin your research in the library. (Again, if you have a computer and are on line, things will be different for this phase; Web research will be covered in a later section.)
To a writer, reference librarians are invaluable. They are usually courteous, always helpful, and have the answer, or can find the answer, to almost any question. If you are not familiar with your library, begin at the reference desk. Say something like, "I need all the information I can find on the sex life of the male Ethiopian cockroach." After you follow a librarian around a few times as he or she searches out material for you, you will learn how to find most of what you want on your own. However, as familiar as some professional writers are with the library, there are still times when they probably have to consult a reference librarian.
If the information you need cannot be found in the Almanac or encyclopedias, the librarian will usually lead you to the index tables or computer indexes. Libraries, especially university libraries, have extensive indexes, listing by subject matter what has been covered in the popular press as well as the academic journals. Of these indexes, a good place to start is with the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. Bound in yearly volumes and supplements, this guide lists the subjects covered by nearly 200 magazines.
Many libraries also have indexes of major U.S. papers and several specialized indexes such as those that cover only science publications. The trick to using any of these is to decide what the key words are that pertain to the subject. If the subject is general, for example, "air pollution," look up "air pollution." If the subject is complex and specific, such as, "the effects of acid rain on pristine mountain lakes," you may find something under "air pollution," but "acid rain" or "lakes" would probably be a better bet.
Once you have gathered the names and dates of magazines, papers or journals with articles on the subject, consult the computer listings or card files (or go to the reference desk) to find where they are located in the library. With the exception of the most recent, back copies of major newspapers and some magazines will be found in the microfilm files.
Don't let microfilm scare you. The machines are as easy to use as the telephone, and librarians are happy to help. Often the abundance of information may tempt you to dawdle, but don't. Head straight for the information you need. When you find what you are looking for, you can either take notes or use one of the machines that make microfilm copies. When you need only statistical information, this can be jotted down, saving the time and expense of making copies.
Most magazines are not on microfilm, but instead are boxed or bound by year, with the most recent copies stacked loosely. Since copies of magazine pages are usually less expensive than microfilm copies, it is a good idea to copy most or all of the articles you find that pertain to your subject. Whether making copies or taking notes, always mark on each copy or note sheet the name of the publication, the date of that issue and the page number for future reference.
Textbooks can also provide good, basic information on a subject, as can Almanacs and encyclopedias. Almanacs are particularly helpful when it comes to statistical information. If you need to know how many members the Salvation Army has, or how many passenger cars there are in Turkey, it is all right there in the Almanac.
More and more, libraries are becoming computerized. If you are not terribly "computer literate," your librarian will be happy to walk you through the process of computer research, however, most of the newer programs are very user friendly and will guide you with prompts, questions and instructions right on the screen.
If you can afford it, and the project is worth the expense, a computer specialist at your library (or at many newspapers) can do your searching for you and deliver a neat bundle of research. Of course, you can do this yourself with a little training on the Web, but it may still cost money to tie into some of the data bases necessary to do a thorough search.
The library is a writer's best friend; the better you understand it, the more you get from it. Most large libraries offer regular tours, and many colleges and adult-education programs offer courses on the use of the library. Take advantage of such tours and courses available in your area. When you do use a librarian's services, take mental notes on the process, so that next time, you can handle the task yourself.
These offices keep files on employees who generate publicity. The files contain biographical information, past articles about persons and their work, and copies of academic papers. Usually, publicity personnel will be glad to copy from the file and send to you portions that pertain to your story.
Additionally, public information personnel are usually familiar with the newsmakers in their institutions, having interviewed them for press releases. They can be very helpful in telling you how to approach your interviewee and what to expect from an interview subject. Sometimes they may even lead you to a better source.
For short articles, where you may need only a brief explanation and a quote or two, going through the PIO may be a wasted expense. However, for features, which require extensive interviews with more than one person, they can often save you a lot of time.
Many PIOs publish directories of "experts." These list by category the people in their institution with expertise in various fields. Under general categories, such as "literature," subcategories are usually listed along with the name, title and phone number of a specialist. For example, if your category is "Feminism," subcategories could include "history," "philosophy of," "political theories about," "religion," etc., each with one or more specialists listed.
Experts' directories can be valuable in locating the right people to interview on specific subjects. If you are on the institution's mailing list and they know you are a writer, these directories may be regularly sent to you. Write to those who do not send you a directory and inquire whether they publish one.
Another handy reference, available from colleges and universities, is the student-faculty directory. If you pick up a lead that refers to Dr. Strangetoe, Professor of Podiatry at a major university, instead of paying for a long distance information call and subsequent calls to the university, you simply look up the doctor's number. Even the student section can be helpful, as many successful projects by graduate students also receive publicity.
In addition to providing directories, press releases and guidance, PIOs are a good source of photographic support for your articles. Securing photos to accompany your articles is extremely important. Some publications accept only article/picture packages, and many do not pay extra for photos.
If a professor or researcher has generated publicity in the past, the PIO is likely to have photos on file. If not, staff photographers are sometimes on hand to take whatever pictures your editor may want. These are usually provided free of charge, and can often make the difference between a sale and a rejection.
When negotiating with publicity personnel, always be courteous, never demanding. For the most part, these offices are understaffed and their people overworked. Letting them know that you appreciate their help is important. The best way to do this is by informing them when an article you have written involving someone from their institution appears in print. I do this by post card, as soon as an article is published. If the article appears in a trade publication that is not available on the newsstand, I offer to send them a copy. In some cases, the magazine will send copies to the interviewee, but never to the PIO. If you keep the PIO staff informed, sending copies for their files when requested, you will build strong relationships that will serve you well in the future.
Again, much of this information and help is being put up on the Web, and many colleges, universities and research labs have comprehensive Web sites. You can accomplish the same thing electronically as you do by mail if you simply go to these sites, find the PIO or Public Relations departments, and query them with e-mail messages.
If you have a fair grasp of the subject before the interview, the people you interview will have more respect for you as a writer, and you will not have to waste your subject's time and your long distance money, asking questions to which you should already know the answers.