Research—Online or Hands On?

I have been watching two friends of mine do an enormous amount of research for a novel … much of it online so far. I’ve done a fair amount of research myself in my editing years—fact-checking, name spellings, quotation research, and so on—and every bit of it has been done right here in the swanky second-floor office in the pink house with the blue door, thanks to Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like to edit a book in the days before the Internet. It must’ve taken months! Just the thought of all those trips to the library makes me tired. So I was somewhat amused by this article in the Guardian: the author, Tristram Hunt, grouses that the British Library (with help from Google) is going to put some 250,000 texts from 1700 to 1870 online (others more ancient are already available).

What’s not to love about this? Well, Hunt says, “When everything is down-loadable, the mystery of history can be lost. Why sit in an archive leafing through impenetrable prose when you can slurp frappucino while scrolling down Edmund Burke documents?” Hunt thinks the original documents are more inspiring.

Whatever, dude. I just want to get my questions answered as quickly as possible. (Of course, what often happens is I get caught up in the reading, and then I click on the related articles, and before I know it—presto!—the whole morning’s gone. The Internet can, indeed, be a bad thing, though not in the way Tristram Hunt would have you think.)

I’m not alone in my disdain. Historian Lucy Inglis was driven to apoplexy (her word) by Hunt’s article, so she immediately wrote a response, which you can read here. Inglis says, “The idea that history is somehow demeaned by popular access is silly,” to which I might add, “and possibly dangerous.” One need only take a look at the lack of knowledge (historical, geographical, and otherwise) by political candidates (past and present) to get good and frightened, if you catch my drift. Inglis goes on to point out ways in which digital technology has been used to mine the archives for good, including this mapping of the Republic of Letters by Stanford University (see more here).

My friends are still researching. But soon the traveling will commence: there are museums to be visited, archives to be mined, meetings to be taken, cemeteries to be walked. All this will be focused and intentional, based on the preparation made possible by studying and researching online sources. It’s going to make a great story, and one of these days I’m going to tell you about it. :)

Tweet: The idea that history is somehow demeaned by popular access is silly!
Tweet: I can’t imagine what it would have been like to edit a book in the days before the Internet.

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2 Comments

  1. April Line says:

    I love this post, J. You always give me new stuff to read, dangit. And I’m trying to write a One-Handed Read this morning!

    I look forward to following the intellectual treasure hunt you always lead me on, but for now, I will say the following: Cool thing about writing fiction is that if you can get a good enough sense of a thing, you can make up the details. Of course, it’s important to be responsible and all that, and if you’re going to use a specific setting and name it as it is in real life, I think it’s incredibly important to visit.

    But I am likewise thrilled that the internet collects all this wonderful stuff, and while I do sometimes get nostalgic for the astringent scent of the stacks, I’m overjoyed that I mostly don’t have to leave my office.

    I can still have the stacks on my terms.

    • jamiechavez says:

      Thank you. :) I have a lot of fun writing these posts. But it makes me happy that they’re appreciated.

  2. […] We were talking this week about online research, and the astonishing things that are available online. (I mean, holy cannoli, the folks at Medievalist.net have got it going on: look at the Ghent altarpiece in 100 billion pixels.) And it seems Tristram Hunt’s position on the subject got more than one person’s dander up. […]

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  1. By Short Saturday: The New Renaissance on 21 April, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    […] We were talking this week about online research, and the astonishing things that are available online. (I mean, holy cannoli, the folks at Medievalist.net have got it going on: look at the Ghent altarpiece in 100 billion pixels.) And it seems Tristram Hunt’s position on the subject got more than one person’s dander up. […]