free html hit counter

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Musty Old Books

I love the smell of books. I'll grant that it probably has to do with my mother being a librarian. That concession has nothing to do with some silly Lamarckian "it's in my blood" idea, but is simply because I practically grew up in her library. Smell is a very powerful trigger of memories, so whenever I catch a whiff of stacks of old books, I'm immediately 8 years-old again, sitting on the floor with some big book about robots or space or computers or castles or knights open on my lap. (This was a high school library, by the way, so those weren't typically picture books.)

More than sentimental reminiscing, though, is what books represent to me. They're not just knowledge, I can get that lots of places. They're the actual physical embodiment of knowledge. Information incarnate.

So it was with a pang of longing and a tear in my eye that I read this article in the Miami Herald. To save space (and effort), let me start by saying that I completely agree with what Ars Technica had to say.

I'd just like to add a few things to that:

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that Google is inevitably the first place I turn for research. The primary reason is accessibility. I'm seldom far from a computer with web access, but the nearest library with an encyclopedia is miles away. The secondary reason is that since I graduated, I seldom need to do rigorous research. The Web is good enough for most of my needs.

Second, CD-based encyclopedias are great resources. You get all the searchability of the Web, with great assurance that 90% of the returns won't be total crap. True, they're not constantly updated like the Web supposedly is, but you have some assurance of accuracy at the time they were published. (Maybe publishers should investigate a quarterly subscription model, perhaps?) Also, consider this: How many of the results in a typical Google search are really current anyway? Or what if you don't want current information? Online search results tend to be swamped by current events, which aren't always what you want.

Third, when I do serious research online, where do I typically wind up? Usually on websites that relate to well-respected printed references. Merriam-Webster, Consumer Reports, the C.I.A. Factbook, or major newspapers. Iraq4Ever may have a perfectly accurate history of Iraq, but I'd certainly want to verify it with another source. In fact, I'd do that regardless. I also often find myself searching on Amazon for books to use as references, whether I buy them or check them out from the library. Probably the most valuable online resources are professional journals, but as those are far from free, you'd better really want the information.

Fourth, even searches in CD-based references can't completely replace paper- and leather-based tomes. I've learned a lot from encyclopedias, but probably less than a quarter of it was stuff I set out to find. Searches and electronic indices return exactly what you're looking for. If you're in a hurry, that's good. I can't count the times while using a real encyclopedia, though, that I would finish with my target article and see something on the next page that looked interesting. Two hours and 200 pages later, I'd realize that I was reading the encyclopedia. When I research things online, I feel like a hummingbird, flitting from one resource to another, but when I'm reading a book, I feel more grazing animal of some kind. Boy, that analogy fell apart, but the first half was right on!

Online research enthusiasts should take note: Those who are most reluctant to rely solely on online sources are either technophobes or experienced computer/Internet users, and their reasons are often identical. That should be an enormous red flag, prompting people to wonder what these two disparate groups know that they don't.

Someday when we have the space and money (and some assurance that we won't have to move them for at least a few years), Heather Marie (my wife) and I are going to buy a really nice set of encyclopedias. A big, five-foot-long shelf set. Leather-bound. With gold leaf.

Provided they still make them by then.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home