Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Going Beyond Google

When I went to college, the university library switched from card catalogues to computerized databases--but it wasn't online at the beginning, I don't think. Heck, we were registering for classes by telephone until junior or senior year, if I recall, and just a five years before me, my sister registered for classes by standing in line at the Registrar. I started going to college when I was still in high school, in 1997, and the main database still only let you look up books within UC Irvine, but the "Melvyl" database let you look up other UCs for Inter Library Loan. That I thought was pretty awesome. Now it seems the bare minimum. The Libraries of Alexandria, it was not.

When the system finally went online, it became much easier to look up books and records, especially from home. I commuted back and forth to school, and so this was helpful. And then Google took over the world and it seems like everyone forgot how to do research in libraries.

This is a problem even in the law, which you would think is slavishly devoted to musty tomes. Those are for show, man. Ask any 2L what a "pocket part" is, or how to look up statutory law in a book. Most of them will say "but there' Westlaw and Lexis Nexis!"

There is. I myself have gotten really lazy and entirely too enslaved to expensive online databases with steep subscription fees. Even as I do less pure legal research, I've just come to rely on different databases: JSTOR and HeinOnline. Fortunately I am a perpetual student and future academic, so it shouldn't be a problem for me to milk these things for free. But it doesn't help me as a scholar to become too dependent on them.

Because really, they are not so awesome. Well they are, but they are not so awesome they replace and displace traditional research. I like that SSRN is free. I admire the AltLaw project, of course, because I admire everything that Tim Wu says and does. But this is a project that is an alternative to Google, Westlaw and Lexis Nexis, not libraries.

Searchable databases are tools, but they do not replace bricks and mortar databases. Some books are just out of print. Sometimes it's easier to track down a physical copy of a journal article and photocopy it than search for an hour on various online databases before you realize it hasn't been digitized. And sometimes, libraries have print directories and records that you just can't find online.

It's certainly been the case for me as I try to find a systematic way to target companies within a particular industry in my geographic area to get a sufficent N for my sampling frame. Dude, we have a business and economics library at this university, along with one devoted to labor issues and industrial relations. There have all these directories in print, along with all these studies and statistical data that I can't get on the web! Or at least, exhaustive Google searching wouldn't have found such rich resources.

They even have all these "Research Guides" for "if you want to look up this type of thing (this industry, this question, this case study, etc. etc.), do this."

Pretty awesome. I am in love with the library again. Libraries have a certain romance to them, which is probably why The Archivist is one of my favorite books (and also because it is about my favorite poet).


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