Research is critical for a writer. But not too long ago I was reminded again that these days it’s a different world for a scribe who needs to access information.
I recently took my juniors to the school library to do some research on popular terms from the 1920s in connection with Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. Our phenomenal librarian had assured me that, as usual, she would pull a stack of reference books on the subject of the 1920s and put them on a cart for student use. Some administrative tasks (read: Facebook) kept me in my room after releasing the students, so I arrived at the library after my young charges, and the first thing I saw was the cart of books sitting in the middle of the room. And as I stood there, slack-jawed, I could almost see the cobwebs growing on them. Each of my students was seated at an individual computer station and the Google servers were getting enough of workout that I was sure they would crash–plummeting Google stock and frustrating gamers and porn surfers the world over.
My heart sank. I went over to the cart and–Vanna White-style–drew my extended wrist across the cart and purred, “We’ve got books, folks. Real-life books. Step right up. No waiting!” I was unanimously ignored. Eventually two girls, the ones who draw unicorns on their notebooks, write fantasy novels in their spare time, and think Harry Potter is a religion, came over and grabbed some books off the cart and got to work. These girls instantly became my new heroes. The salt in the wound, however, was that even though I had planned two days in the library to work on this group project, by the end of the period everyone was done. But we still had to go back the next day to finish up. Why? Because we had to wait for the girls who had used the books.
I have to admit it’s hard to argue with that kind of efficiency and success.
I was a little more clever when it came time for my Sophomores to do their research paper. In their assignment instructions, I told them that they had to have a minimum of three sources, but only one could be an internet or computer-related source.
“I want you to get used to books, too,” I said.
“But what if it’s a newspaper or book that has full text on-line?” a student asked. “Does that count as our internet source?”
“Uh,” I sputtered, instantly trying to calculate if full on-line texts constituted an internet source or a hard copy source. “Let me think about that.”
Then I decided to try a different approach. “I just want you to have experience looking at indices–They looked at me quizzically–and the tables of contents. I want you to experience the joy of discovery and adventure as if you were on an archeological dig. I want you to know the thrill of uncovering that nugget of information in chapter 16 of that tome that was shoved in the wrong section of the Dewey Decimal System. Or, if you’ll allow me a slight mixed metaphor, I want you to think of yourselves as literary detectives who are trying to solve a mystery and are searching for clues.”
A boy in the third row raised his hand.
“Can we use our cell phones?”
I stared at him for a second before responding.
Ah, screw it.
“Fine,” I said. “Use the internet.”