Pounding the Digital Pavement

Research and the Web

Let’s face it, times have changed. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to come across as that guy with “old man syndrome”, where I shake my fist in the air and begrudgingly reminisce about what it was like back in my day. But that’s not the intent.

Digital Pavement

When I was growing up, our information superhighway was the library. Instead of Google we had a librarian who could provide you with just about any bit of information you needed. If you so chose, you could go about this mission on your own, by flicking through the card catalog otherwise known as the Dewey Decimal System. In the end, I would always summon the librarian in my quest for information regardless of where I started. She, and yes, it was often a she back then, would magically locate the book in the vast wall of tomes before me, as if casually grabbing her favorite scarf from her closet.

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I remember sitting down at one of many available tables, the quiet busy whisper of pages turning or people padding along on their scavenger hunt for data. The stiff spine of my book would crack, releasing a musky vanilla scent, an exciting precursor of what was to come. The librarian would return with more books. Before I knew it, an overwhelming stack would surround me and force me into telling her that I had had enough.

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At times I would use something called microfiche, which is a device that still exists today and looks similar to an old-school, computer monitor, that requires you to thread film through a magnifying system which projects a news article through a screen in front of you. It does take some work, as you need to know the newspaper, the date, and the specific article you’re looking for, but I find them to be quite useful.

In any event, during those days, the library was where most people went to gather information and do research.

At that time, my dad worked for Bell Labs and had in his home office a rather archaic version of the Internet. At his desk sat a terminal, which connected him to a network of other computers at his work by telephone. You could say that when comparing these terminals to today’s Internet, they were what an abacus was to a scientific calculator. I was aware that Bell Labs was a place where cutting edge science took place, but neither I nor anyone else for that matter, saw the potential of this terminal in his office other than for how it was used.

The first version of the Internet was used by the military but became more main stream to the public in the mid 90’s. Although even then, I don’t think anyone aside from the military saw its utility. Most people used it for “electronic mail” but if one wanted to they could do searches and wait up to thirty minutes for a page to load. The Internet however didn’t take long to grow into today’s popularity.

Now used by just over three billion people, it has created a web that can lead to an answer quicker than a spider can make its kill. It’s easy. It’s fast. The ability to do “research” often requires little to no work. If one wants, they can get all of the information they need, right from their phone, tablet, laptop or desktop. It’s a landscape of endless “electronic wisdom” with an exciting dynamic of open sourced information that is easy to get and often helpful.

But here in lies the cautionary tale of fast at your fingertips information. Whether you’re reading a write-up on Wikipedia, an article in someone’s blog or a news story, the reality is that anyone, including yourself, can be a published author these days. Your average Joe or Josephine represents the Internet’s digital fabric, which means not everything on the web is going to be accurate. And while accredited news sources like: CNN, FOX or C-NBC do a decent job of reporting, I would even enter them with some caution, as today’s fight for “front page” material can often be a sloppy attempt to get “copy and paste job” news stories out there fast and sometimes incorrectly. This is not to say I deem everything online as bunk but from a research standpoint, I do take a much more hard-nosed approach for what I think passes mustard on the Web. This brings me to how I use the Internet.

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I look for “source” and not actual subject matter. A source can be: a hard copy of printed material (or) media, the name of a person, or the name of a location. Those three things allow me to start fact checking.

When I’m looking up source, I think of the Internet less as an information superhighway and more as a tool that can lead me to my source. The search engines are the bloodhounds that bring me to the evidence but not the answer. It is then my responsibility from that point on, to fact check. And here’s the beauty of it, back long before the World Wide Web ever existed, it took a lot more work to find what you were looking for. Furthermore, for historical purposes, the data in your local library could often be rather limited to your area. And even if the library had everything you needed to know, trying to find it could often be a rather large undertaking and could sometimes turn up empty leads.

Now days, Googling for a source first makes the most sense. Search engines can rip through the seemingly infinite pool of data and with the accuracy of a heat seeking missile, narrow your field down greatly. If a webpage has a source, then consider it a hit. If not, move on to the next.

A source can also bring you a “lead”. Written source or media can lead you to a library which may lead you to more books or media on the subject matter you are researching. The name of a person can lead you to an actual human-being that you can call, email, or if possible, meet in person. The name of a location can lead you to a town or a place in close proximity to the area you’re researching, which in turn, can lead you to a library with locally sourced information or better, a town historian you can talk to.

All of these things work in harmony with one another and in turn can grow your research exponentially. A person can lead you to written or media source, which may lead you to more written material. With the written material, you may stumble across a reference to a local historian, an archivist, or a professor, which could lead you to a location, which may lead you to yet another lead. You get the idea. With these three different types of source, you should not only be able to adequately fact check your material but also learn more about your subject matter than you had ever intended.

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Thankfully, the information superhighway hasn’t paved over the fine institution that is the library. If anything, it has made the library a better place.

So yes, times have changed and frankly, unless you’re a Luddite stuck in the 19th-century, these changes should be welcomed.

How about you? How do you conduct your research?

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