What Online Research Misses

As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I spent many long, happy hours in the stacks of the Perry-Castañeda Library.

Stacks of the Perry-Castañeda Library at UT-Austin (CC content from https://www.flickr.com/photos/misshaley/450106785)

Stacks of the Perry-Castañeda Library at UT-Austin (CC content from https://www.flickr.com/photos/misshaley/450106785)

The photo above shows just how much space there is in a single stack row, with serviceable beige carpeting and reasonably good lighting. One of my clearest memories of dissertation research is sitting on the floor, methodically going through the indices of about 50 years worth of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, from roughly 1820 to 1870, looking for keywords related to my topic.

That’s right. I pulled volumes published in 1851 straight off of the library shelves, plunked myself down, and gently leafed through the 150-year-old pages, careful not to inadvertently damage the delicate edges. Apparently UT had an additional, more pristine second set of Blackwood’s in its Harry Ransom Research Center collection?

This might not sound like a Super Fun Time to many folks. I admit that I had to fortify myself with a double load of antihistamines, a box of tissue, and my asthma inhaler to spend more than two hours in the company of musty books. But there’s something about the experience of lugging around 50 pounds of physical texts that not only makes the research process seem exceptionally real (and weighty!) but that also, for a scholar of 18th- and 19th-century literature like me, feels more like the experience of the authors I study.

It’s not the same, intellectually or emotionally, to click through an electronic database, download a PDF, and execute a search command to find keywords. Now, if I want to search several decades of Blackwood’s, I can just go to the Bodleian Library’s excellent site in the UK, type in my keyword, and click through the results from my kitchen in Texas.

Convenient? Heck yes! Far more accurate and comprehensive than my own cataloguing efforts? Probably! I appreciate the access that such library resources provide — indeed, probably the most exciting research event I now experience is that of “Hurrah! The article I need is included in our university subscription and I can read it without interlibrary loan!” Still, with the growth of online learning pulling students farther and farther away from the traditional brick-and-mortar library, with its thousands of topically grouped books that are not and may never be available via Google, I mourn the loss of the stacks-reading experience.

Browsing the library stacks is as much about accidental discovery as it is about finding precisely and only the information we think we need, and browsing the web, even with fortuitous related links, just isn’t the same.

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