On the Virtual Road

The below was published in the May 2017 issue of The Biographers Craft, the newsletter of Biographers International Organization (BIO).

I recently completed the first draft of the biography of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, the first Indian woman who became a doctor. I have been at it for seven years, almost the same length of time that BIO has been in existence. In fact, attending the first BIO conference in Boston was one of the first steps I took as I embarked on my biography project.

At the outset I had only two pieces of information—an 1888 biography that was available on Google Books as a free download and a family plot in a cemetery in New York, where Anandi’s ashes are buried. The first so enthralled me that I felt compelled to find out more. The second offered a key to opening the door to that quest.

I was pessimistic about how much primary information I would be able to find relating to my subject. One reason was that the story had taken place during the 1880s—too long ago, I thought, for information about private individuals to be available. Another was my perception that in India there isn’t a great deal of interest, and therefore resources devoted, to preserving historical documents and artifacts. Even so, I was undaunted because I felt a deep personal connection to the story.

I started by googling the names of the individuals who appear at the beginning of the story. Since these are Americans, I hoped to find basic information about those individuals, such as where they were from, where they were educated, and their careers. It was slow going at first. However, I was unconsciously learning about conducting fuzzy searches, even as my brain was adapting to Google’s particularities.

My first payoff was when I found on Google Books the specific issue of the newsletter which launches my story. I had a photocopy of the original letters, and it was thrilling to find a word-for-word match between the photocopies and the printed letters. It was even more useful to read the rest of the newsletter, for it provided the context within which those letters were published. Suddenly it became about much more than the specific letters; it became a story, also, of American missionaries in India and their zeal both for converting Indians to Christianity and for bringing progress to a “heathen” land. I also became newly aware of Indians’ gradual awakening and yearning for progress.

As I became better at online searching, I found that my persistence was rewarded by amazing finds and creative satisfaction. I found a newsletter, published in India, in the online archives of a religious organization here in the U.S. I found the autobiography of the U.S. consul to India, in which he devoted an entire chapter to meeting Anandi. Once again, I found more than I sought—a new angle about progressive nineteenth century Americans and the compelling impression that Anandi made on this one American.

Contemporary books were another important resource. Not knowing how useful a book would ultimately prove, it did not make sense to buy each and every book that seemed promising. Here, the inter-library loan systems were a godsend. I benefited immensely from these library networks as I am not affiliated with a university. They provided me the most obscure of books—free of cost!

I used online archives of newspapers. Besides American ones, I was able to access the archives of newspapers in Singapore and Hong Kong. It was challenging to find the archives of Indian newspapers. Even a visit to the newspaper’s offices in Mumbai did not provide any useful leads. Then, unexpectedly, I came across a recently published book in which there was a reference to archives of Indian newspapers. The author of the book was kind enough to tell me how to access the online archive from a university library—just a short drive from my house!

Using only online tools, I was able to find and purchase copies of articles from the archives of the New York Public Library and the British Library in London.

Last, but not least, I would like to describe my experience with the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. I had found it slow going on a one-day visit to their library. How then would I handle the time and expense of traveling to Boston for several days for a full review of available materials? During a phone call to discuss options, my contact at the Society suggested a solution. They would mail the microfiche film to a branch of my public library in North Carolina. I could use the facilities at that library to review and save copies of pertinent documents. When done, the public library would mail the microfiche reels back to Boston. Amazingly, everything worked out exactly as planned.

My journey along the virtual road was, and continues to be, a rich and satisfying one. It opened new vistas of knowledge that I could not have dared imagine when I first set out. As someone whose day job is in technology, I find it especially gratifying that the most cutting edge tools are being deployed to preserve the past and to make it easily accessible to all.

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