Hunting and gathering in the stacks

A few weeks ago, I got an email saying the Simpson Library will be culling its art-related collection (everything in the Ns), and went there to see which books I thought should stay. When I got there, I saw many more books with the “marked for culling” white slips than I had expected. I madly went through the stacks until I ran out of time. Feeling outraged and depressed, I went to Twitter, where I found that my colleague Betsy Lewis had already experienced the same, and reacted with an impassioned and much more coherent response than I did. I strongly encourage you to read her post.
A few days later, Neil DeGrasse Tyson – everyone’s favorite astrophysicist – tweeted a series #wheniwasyourage. You should check that out too.
Those two things are not really related, but they did bring me to a realization:

Research used to be hunting and gathering. Now it’s more like farming.

When I was a kid, doing research meant going to my neighborhood library, looking through the card catalogue, and then wandering the stacks. Finding a promising listing in the card catalogue was a lucky break not just for the book itself – which may be out, anyway – but for all the books physically near where it should be in the stacks. I vividly remember gathering armfuls of promising books, taking them back to a table and going through their tables of contents, pulling the edible nuts from the twigs, if you will.
Admittedly, it was hit-or-miss. Sometimes I came home empty. But sometimes I came home with what felt like a mammoth to feed me all winter long.

Why the atlatl? Because it's a great word, that's why. And good for hunting.
Why the atlatl? Because it’s a great word, that’s why. And good for hunting.

Today, all that is gone. Our physical library at UMW, in my field at least, is anemic. There just isn’t much there to begin with, and with the culling, any potential hunting success becomes a more remote possibility. Instead of spending a day hunting in the stacks and coming home with a single squirrel, students are now much better off farming the Internet for some corn.
What do I mean by research as farming? Well, there’s now a method that students generally follow, and it works pretty well: start with Wikipedia or some other web site, then go to the sources of that article, then maybe the sources from there. Pretty much everything will be recent and available online and used by lots of people already. So: bland. Nothing new, nothing challenging. But filling, sure. [I will note here that the new and heavily quoted is strongly encouraged as a better source in research. See the UMW CRAAP module if you don’t believe me. And try not to snigger at the acronym.]
I know I sound old but I miss the good ol’ days (for the wandering-in-the-library-fun, mind you, not the other stuff. Most of that was awful. I don’t miss Chernobyl and Apartheid and the early days of AIDS. Just so we’re clear.)
There are advantages to farming, of course. Research today is infinitely easier, for one. It’s much more democratic, too. It really doesn’t matter what is or isn’t in your neighborhood library. You can do almost everything from your couch at home. And there’s just so much *more* stuff to look at, there literally isn’t enough time in your entire life to get through it all. So yeah, that’s all great.
But the hunting and gathering made for a different type of research. More blind spots, less in the way of comprehensive analysis. But the hunting process meant discovery, adventure, something NEW. Something like: huh, I found some blueberries and hunted a hare for the first time ever. Wonder what that will taste like? (I’m guessing delicious.)
As a kid, I probably used references together that had never been used together before. And maybe made connections and came up with ideas that had never come up before. I know for a fact I used sources that few people had ever read. Yes, probably most of those were not very exciting, but they made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile, something compelling. Today I fear that for most students research feels like drudgery, and drudgery with little payoff, at that. After all: anything they come up with will be well-tread ground.
I’m not suggesting we get rid of the internet, of course, but maybe we could get back to more than just wheat-and-corn in the research that we assign? Maybe we can go back to finding that wild boar or chestnuts or wild mushrooms?
It makes for tastier eating.
Mmmmm. Sanglier.
Mmmmm. Sanglier.

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