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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Ancient Data
Volume 39, Number 2 - March/April 2015

“Where are the snows of yesteryear?” as the poet Francois Villon plaintively asked—though in medieval French, of course. Villon may have been mourning lost loves, but a longtime online searcher may muse nostalgically about reference sources, digital and print, that may have ceased. Even some that still exist have diminished so far in scope and vigor as to be shadows of their former selves. Others have morphed into digital versions so retargeted at consumers and new consumer technology as to abort efficient use by information professionals. Still others have sunk so deep into niche markets as to make them almost indiscoverable by anyone with a passing interest, no matter how intense at the time.

Before you start accusing me of insufferably reactionary “geezer-istic” thinking, I will admit and loudly—nay, I will proclaim to the heavens—that those ancients existed in the bad old days. Our reliance on these traditional reference resources usually stemmed from our need for information refuges as oases in a desert of unavailable data. I can recall sins committed by databases in decades gone by that would have shocked and appalled today’s information nabobs. A colleague once told me of how an almost biblical business directory failed to recognize the change in top management at the nation’s largest bank for more than a year. That same directory service and its online carrier managed to lose the “S’s” for another quarter. But though such errors might irritate professionals, they would not seriously threaten the awesome authority of the source primarily because one needed to cling to faith in the source to trust any sweeping searches of multiple corporate entities. Of course, if you only followed a couple of companies, you might build your own information monitoring, but for finding a host of companies with certain characteristics, this source was life and death.

Of course, errors persist even in our information-wealthy environment. A decade or two ago, you would find corporate websites operating without much attention to constant updating. One of the nation’s leading automotive firms once lost its URL when someone forgot the $50 annual renewal. It sometimes seemed as if some corporations assigned updating the website to some low-level clerk in the IT department who never got the memos from headquarters announcing significant changes. I had a private nickname for such almost laughable holes in the digital safety net, the nickname stemmed from an error in The New York Times Information Bank, one of the earliest online news services. This digital version of The Times’ clipping morgue transferred to a more free-text-oriented service. In the course of the transfer, the names of newspapers clipped had to be expanded to full phrases instead of abbreviations. And someone changed the Miami Herald to the Miami Harold. So from then on, any egregious errors in digital content became another “Miami Hal” to me.

 I used to worry that clients might miss essential reference tools that remained in print mode as the world went digital. I don’t any more. Not because there are no such sources left. I imagine there still are. But how good would they still be? Even if they send out their most probably print forms requesting input from various sources, how likely is it that they even reach the right people? How important would filling out a form seem to some staffer who had never heard of or seen the source? And if the staffer looked it up (aka Googled it) on the web and found little or nothing there, I can hear the whoosh from here as the forms hit the wastepaper basket.

Of course, there are some ancient sources that are frozen in time. You can find them listed in the ALA’s Guide to Reference Sources. But most of those ancient verities cover only ancient verities. The other day, I saw a notice that the University of Michigan Library, Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, and ProQuest were presenting “the texts of the first printed editions of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and other lesser-known titles from the early modern era” and making them “accessible for free on the Web.” Now I’m sure that scholars will appreciate getting this content in some meticulously accurate “first edition” form, but the content itself has been online since Project Gutenberg, a service that started before the web even existed. And with Google Books, I’d imagine even the digital images of those early editions are substantially available. And, of course, the British Museum and the Folger Library and dozens of other research establishments have taken the trouble to digitize their holdings both in image and text forms for public access.

But that takes us to why these days of information affluence—for all their daunting challenges—remain the good new days. Think about it. In the past, if you wanted to do serious research on anything with an historical tradition, you might expect to need funding to take you across continents and oceans. That dissertation would not be accepted without your arriving at a distant research library accompanied by letters of reference from faculty or other influential contacts. Arrangements and clearances for using collections would have to be made in advance. Now even the newest amateur writing a soon-to-be self-published novel can do research using original sources from the historical period, getting the language right, finding period maps for locating sites and distances between locations. (Of course, having been rendered a Kindle-itis compulsive reader of shamefully low period novels, I might recommend some such authors spend more time with grammar and spelling guides. There should never be a comma between an adjective and its noun and “genteel” is not spelled “gentile.” AARRGGHH.)

Actually there might be another hidden benefit to all this ancient data. Perhaps some of the weaker-minded of those budding novelists will get entwined in the research and find themselves spending hours and days winding from source to source to source. They might even pick up a subliminal education in good writing techniques. Is this a wonderful world or not? I ask you.

The late Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, contributing editor for ITI's NewsBreaks, and a columnist for Information Today.


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