Thursday, May 14, 2009

Research In the Age of the Internet

In my previous post, I talked about what library research was like before the age of the Internet. Things are different now. You can search for sources of all kinds from computers. You no longer rely on how others organize information (pre-defined subject categories, for example), since "keyword" searches are now possible, plus full-text searches. And many of the materials you use can be accessed directly from the computer: many journal articles, for example. Interlibrary loan requests can be made directly from the computer, too. More and more, historical sources are being scanned and made more widely available through web-based digital collections, as well.

I have to confess that I do appreciate how interlinked computers have made some dimensions of research easier. But I still do use books in my library too. I appreciate the opportunity to get up and stroll among the stacks. I like scanning the books on the shelf and finding related books that I might not have otherwise learned about. I like reading journal articles from bound volumes, and then skimming the rest of the bound volume to see what other articles that journal published. While I'm there, I scan recent issues of other journals I like as well.

I don't use notecards anymore, and I feel some nostalgic regret about this. Instead I use "OneNote," a Microsoft product that lets you organize information very flexibly. I do really enjoy this system as well. It's the electronic equivalent to notecards -- or, at least, I use it like that. Well, kind of. I don't separate out topics on separate cards (or "pages") since searching helps me to compile information on a single topic from many sources. But I do set up separate pages for notes from each source. And at the top of each, I write out the full bibliographic information and "tag" it with "biblio" so that I can collect all of my bibliographical information on one page.

(Recently I discovered Zotero. This is a web-based bibliographical database. While I am searching for sources, I can instantly copy the bibliographical information into Zotero and organize it in multiple ways. I can then collect the relevant sources and produce bibliographies from them when it comes time to produce my bibliography. Now I'm trying to figure out how better to integrate this with my use of OneNote.)

What amazes me the most about OneNote is the ability to capture pieces of electronic sources and copy them directly into your "notebook." You can also cross-reference your own notes using hyperlinks. So I can, for example, copy the digital image of a facsimile page of a historical source, paste it onto a page of my OneNote notebook (and OneNote automatically adds a "citation" to the original source), and then mark that image or type notes along the side. None of this damages the original. And, these digital images themselves become searchable!

So computers and the Internet not only provide access to a lot of sources much more easily, but also offer new possibilities for keeping information organized.

But there are new challenges as well. There is so much information out there, that it can be difficult to find exactly what you wish to find. And there is so much storage space on our own computers that it can be hard to keep our information well-organized, because we think it will be easy to find anything and so we might not always organize it as well as we should. In practice, I am surprised at how hard it can be to find a particular document I know I have through searching. If I have my documents well-organized, it's much easier to find it by navigating through my electronic filing system than by searching.

And I miss the special pleasure of reading through notecards by hand, and arranging them on my desk or even on the floor. Sometimes when I get stuck, I do print things out, cut them apart with scissors, and return to the process of using physical space to re-arrange my thoughts.

But, all in all, I am really glad to have lived in a timespan when I could experience this change in how library research is done. I have been able to experience the advantages of each new development while retaining the wisdom of older ways.

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