Friday, January 20, 2012

Back in the olden days...

I am old enough (ahem) to remember research before the internet. Before Google. Before Wikipedia. We did get a taste of life without Wikipedia on Wednesday, a reminder of what it was like before that global encyclopedia of information (most of it accurate...) existed. But even then, there was still the vastness of the web to inform us. In the past decade or so, I have said more times than I can count, "What did I do before the internet?"

Well, I went to the library. A lot.

I remember the days of research in my high school library or the neighborhood public library or the local university library. I remember card catalogs with neatly typed information about each and every book in the collection. Unless someone had torn the card from the catalog. It happened a lot in my high school. Annoying.

I remember discovering books that hadn't been opened in years, the smell of their musty pages, the crinkle of yellowed paper beneath my fingers. I remember the little slip of paper in the back, stamped with the book's due date. I remember marveling at being the first person to check out a book in 10 years. Or 20 years, even.

Libraries still exist, of course. And kids actually still do research the old fashioned way--using books. (Though the card catalog is now a computer in most instances.) I started working in the children's room of the public library in 2001 and in the nearly five years I was there, I helped many students find information in books. More times than I can count, I heard them say, "Why do I have to look it up in a book when I can find it on the internet?"

Why, indeed.

As a writer, editor, avid reader and perpetual student who would love to get another degree (or two), I love research. (Usually.) I also love books. But I have found myself wondering a lot in the past several years if doing research the old fashioned way has become obsolete. The last time I did library research--including checking out books and periodicals--was when I was finishing my Masters program in 2007. All of my writing research since then has been on the internet.

I miss the library, I really do. I miss the experience of discovering old books or stumbling over new topics in the quest for information on something else entirely. I miss the adventure of that kind of research, for lack of a better word. That moment of "Yes!" when I find something that is exactly what I need.

And yet...

Google is god, isn't it? The entire world at my fingertips. Everything. Anything. Wikipedia covers nearly every subject. Snopes covers nearly everything that's ever been rumored, even those things that happened pre-internet. (Spiders in cacti, tiny dogs that turn out to be rats). The Erotica Readers and Writers Association provides information about nearly everything that relates to my genre of choice. WebMD, Baby Center, Publishers Marketplace, Amazon, CNN, BBC-- they're all in my recent history. Research, research, research. Every newspaper, every magazine and yes, nearly every book, can be found on the internet. I don't have to leave home, I don't have to leave my bed. Hell, I don't even need a computer anymore--my smartphone is an instant tool for the research that used to take hours or days.

I still miss the library. It's a part of my history, my identity. I don't think the current generation has the same connection to the library, because libraries are now multi-media centers with banks of computers front and center and books relegated to the back shelves. But the books are still there, growing older and mustier (until they're taken out of circulation), still available, still full of information. Still an adventure waiting to happen.


  1. Hi Kristina!

    The internet is fine in its way for instant gratification, but like you i still love libraries. MAybe its a boomer thing, but I still feel that sense of wonder and possibility when I walk between the shelves of a library or a book store. And the infinate patience of books, a book which has been sitting untouched for years, being taken down and opened in my hand, I can almost hear a sigh of hope and earnestness from its pages.


  2. Hi, Kristina,

    I was in school (for many years...) long before computers and the Internet. I remember taking notes on each article I read, on 3x5 index cards. By the time I graduated with my doctorate, I had five metal drawers full of those cards, all neatly categorized and alphabetized.

    I try to explain to my students now what research was like before the Internet. They can't grasp the reality, any more than they can understand what it's like to not be able to take phone calls when you're away from home.

    And libraries - they used to be temples. Have you ever visited the New York Public Library, on Fifth Ave. in Manhattan? It's truly a holy place.


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