One of the popular misconceptions about research today is that the Internet holds all the answers. At first glance, the Internet seems to have made research quick and easy. However, all is not what it may seem. There is a great deal of information that researchers will miss using only online sources. As more information and cultural history move online, accessing primary sources will become more difficult.
The writer’s craft has not changed over time, the speed and accessibility of online research seem to have made writing easier. But digital sources are limited in many ways. At its core, the writer’s craft has not changed much over time. Great writing takes as much time and cares as it ever did. Balancing old and new methods of research can require a tricky blend of skills.
John Perry explains how a writer’s research may change over the next decades, taking technological advances into account.
Over-Reliance On Internet Sources
Many younger writers today rely too much on the Internet for their research. The problem with Internet research alone is that you have already allowed an unknown set of writers and editors to curate the information you have available to choose from. What have they left out? Why?
All online sites have their own spin on information, and they come with inherent weaknesses and biases. To cut through this noise, it is best to go for primary sources — actual letters, interviews, eyewitness accounts, documents, and so forth — but in the Internet age, it is more difficult to find them than ever. In the future, primary sources may be reduced to nothing more than online news stories which are written to be brief and easily digestible.
One of the most problematic sources today is Wikipedia. It is a crowd-sourced encyclopedia, meaning that all of its entries are written by registered users of the site. These contributors may not have any background in the subjects they write about. No credentials or pedigree is required.
They often have an ideological spin, and they may include or exclude information for specious reasons. Too many people rely too heavily on Wikipedia, believing that it is a legitimate encyclopedia. Some entries are scholarly and reliable, and others are from Uncle Frank in his basement. You can’t always tell which is which.
Wikipedia, however, can be a good starting point. While not a reliable source in itself, it can point the way to reliable sources. Wikipedia articles sometimes have excellent bibliographies or footnotes that can be helpful, reliable sources. As long as the researcher is aware of the limitations of the site, it can be a useful tool.
One of the best places for research is a good library. Library research skills may be falling to the wayside in favor of search engine expertise, but the vast catalog of knowledge in any specialty library can be much more thorough and reliable than the Internet.
This is especially true of archival material written before the mid-1990s, when online news and research first came on the scene. In the past, researching a book led to original and unique troves of information housed in business and academic archives that simply have never been made available online. These records may not be kept in paper form any longer, leading to a loss for the writer researching a book.
Another advantage of original sources is that writers can stumble upon an unexpected treasure trove of information purely by happenstance. For example, John Perry found an archive of original material related to Sgt. Alvin York, a historical figure about whom he was writing a biography. This archive revealed several surprising documents and eyewitness reports that weren’t accessible anywhere online. Without going to the primary source, this information would have gone unnoticed and the story of the book would not have been nearly as rich or as complete.
The Future Of Research
It is difficult to say how researching a book will change over the next 30 years. We are already experiencing a period where a vast catalog of information is available at our fingertips, even when searching on a small handheld device like a tablet or smartphone. But printed books, microfilm, tape, video recordings, and other concrete reference material are disappearing, being discarded or crumbling to dust. Some of it will be digitized but much will be gone forever.
Future researchers may find that the information they have to go on is biased and superficial. We can only hope this will create a commitment to preserving more traditional forms of research, and that libraries will devote the resources necessary to maintaining microfilm, TV news tapes, historic periodicals, and other similar materials. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. Libraries must continue to offer hard copy formats even though much of the library’s function will probably move online over the next few decades.
Balancing Old And New
The best approach to research today is to combine old and new methods. While it may seem simple to enter a phrase into a search engine and use the first information that comes up, writers need to do a great deal of close reading to make sure the pieces are accurate sources. And keep digging and asking questions. Don’t let some invisible strangers do the digging and asking for you. The difference between good writing and great writing is that good writers quit too soon.
John Perry encourages all writers to look into the possibilities of visiting a hard copy archive or library collection as part of any research project.
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