Exploring Digital Libraries


 Photo courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org


A few months ago I was working on my undergraduate capstone. Part of my research involved colonial and early republic immigration law. By way of inter-library loan, I was able to get my hands on a book published in 1797. I couldn’t wait to crack open the cover, bury my nose in the pages, and take a deep breath. I <3 love <3 the smell of old books. I know I’m not the only one.

Video from Discovery News YouTube channel explaining why books smell good.

As an advocate for everything digital my infatuation with printed books, and sniffing thereof, may come as a surprise to some readers of this blog. But, as a child, I learned how to use the card catalog and run down a book by the Dewey Decimal system. And while I can’t run my fingers across the spines of books as I walk down the aisles of a digital library, what I get is faster access to more records. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I was able to use digital archives to access information from Ireland. The savings in time and money made my undergraduate heart happy.

This week I spent time wandering the digital passageways of online libraries and contemplating the search for information in the card catalog’s replacement, Google.

In 2013 The New York Review of Books published an article The National Digital Public Library Is Launched!  By Robert Darnton. Darnton worked on the project. It isn’t one massive online library so much as a hub for a bunch of libraries. According to the article, Darnton, and his colleagues, hope for the library to grow internationally. What a fantastic resource that would be!
EWU has a database, and so does the Spokane County Library (SCL). Both are protective of their online stuff. When I access EWU’s database from home, I must use my password. SCL also wants me to remember a password for “my account.” Logging into one will not give me access to the other. That doesn’t make sense. SCL is on the EWU interlibrary loan system, so why can’t I get into everything at SCL once I’m logged in at EWU? If we were on a system like the one Darnton built, I could access everything relevant to my search on one screen.
That line of thinking led me to consider just how I conduct my searches. No matter how excited I am about a project there is always a moment when I sit down and think, “am I going to spend the next week looking for sources and find nothing?” Before I go to any password protected database or archive, I start with a Google search. I know, not everyone is a Google fan. Nicholas Carr isn’t. I am taking his advice and am being skeptical of his skepticism about the internet and the way it’s changing the how humans think. In his article Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains  Carr says bad things are coming as a result of our skimming and article jumping because, “In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.” But, who has time for that?
In Dan Cohen’s Is Google Good for History?  he remembered, “Read it all, we were told in graduate school.” How times have changed. The first hour, of my first class in grad school the professor stressed the importance of “skimming.” Even providing this handout.

If there were ever a time and place for Carr’s “deep reading” and “deep thinking” university would be the spot. However, there isn’t time for that. Not in Cohen’s day and not now. Students must get as much as we can out of reading assignments in five days, regardless of page count, full-time job, family, other classes, spend the sixth day writing something about the book and on the seventh-day speak knowledgeably on the content. If undergrad work didn’t make me a proficient skimmer grad school soon will. The internet and Google had little to do with changing reading habits the creators built on what we were already doing. We must be fast because there are always deadlines. I agree with Cohen; “Google is good.” With it, I’m able to quickly find articles and “mine” the relevant sources. Within a few hours, I can have some solid secondary sources, feel confident about my project, and start the hunt for primary sources.
While my heart enjoys a printed book for leisurely reading on vacations, digital is where my brain needs to be for school.
Do you agree or disagree? Leave a comment below.

2 thoughts on “Exploring Digital Libraries”

  1. I completely agree with your conclusion. I love reading and I do it for fun as much as I can, but when it comes to school and the deadlines we have, priorities should take precedent. The interesting thing about Carr’s opinion is that although Google is the king for search engines, there are other sites that specify and excel in certain things. He wrote this in 2008, so I don’t think this is all his fault, but a website like GoodReads is a perfect example of how someone could use a search engine to broaden their horizon in a positive way.

  2. If you like the smell of old books, you should take a tour of the state archives sometime. If the could bottle that fragrance, I would definitely buy it.
    Maybe as grad students, we aren’t the people Carr is talking about with all of that quiet, contemplative reading. I love getting to fall into a book, but it sure isn’t built into my schedule today. I have to say I’m sympathetic to all the things Carr is nostalgic for, but I also try to remember that his “deep reading” is just the manner of reading that fit a certain state of technology and culture around reading. Asking if the manner of reading that goes along with online sources is “dumber” seems like the wrong question. Great topic to think about, though.


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