Sometimes the most fascinating books are found in the most unexpected places. My fiancé and I recently went on a weeklong road trip to New England, and thanks to AAA's guidebooks, we found ourselves at several fascinating museums.
My favorite was the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York. It felt like fate that it just so happened to be along the route we'd already planned. My fiancé, Jon, had told me about the lock system along the Erie Canal, by which canal boats safely traveled over remarkable elevations, transporting cargo in the decades before the railroad. The Erie Canal was the largest public works project in the country and there's something romantic about life on a riverboat. Immediately, I was enraptured.
I decided then that I would write a historical fiction novel. Although I didn't know much more than that at the time, my desire to write that novel was further solidified when I visited the museum. Between the dioramas depicting life along the canal during its boomtown days to the interactive exhibits showing how the locks work to raise and lower the water level for safe passage, the museum was well done in every sense of the word.
Not only was I impressed by the museum itself, I was astounded at the breadth of the museum store. In a space hardly bigger than my tiny apartment bathroom, they squeezed a fairly comprehensive bookstore of Erie Canal-focused texts. There was everything from textbooks, to creative nonfiction/journalism, to diaries of people who lived and worked on the canal, and even a few historical fiction novels set during the period. There were children's books, young adult books, and plenty for adults.
What better place for someone writing a historical fiction novel! I practically had a treasure trove of research materials at my fingertips. Better yet, I found books that I might not have otherwise come across.
I bought four books:
Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal by Jack Kelly
Images of America: Erie Canal by Martin Morganstein and Joan H. Cregg
Canals For a Nation: The Canal Era in the United States 1790-1860 by Ronald E. Shaw
Ghosts Along the Erie by Mary Ann Johnson
I hadn't previously heard of any of these books before visiting the museum, but it seems only the first two seemed even reasonably popular. The third is a textbook written in 1990 and the last was published by a small press in 1995. I doubt I would have found them on my own, or if I had it certainly would have taken awhile.
After visiting the Erie Canal Museum, raiding the book section of their museum store, and taking copious amounts of photos throughout the museum, I can understand how museums are some of the best resources for historical fiction authors, or researchers of any kind for that matter.
The experience taught me that museum bookstores are great for book discovery. Not only are they hyper-curated to get targeted books on a particular topic, they likely have books on the subject that you might not otherwise be able to find easily at a chain bookstore or library outside the area.
On top of that, when you buy books from a museum store, you're supporting the work the museum does. It's a win-win for readers, researchers, writers, and museum lovers. What's not to love?
Have you had any memorable experiences finding books in museum stores? Share in the comments below!