Research Tools: My Paper Internet

By Sheldon

My “old school” database.

Now that we have finally (I hope) found the place where we will spend the bulk of our remaining years, I am doing something that I have wanted to do for a long time: go through my files. These are not records of bills and whatnot, but my research files accumulated over decades of research. They span an ungodly range of topics from cybersecurity to Babylonian witchcraft literature, and everything in between. Much of it grew out of my graduate research at BYU and Berkeley, and not a little has accumulated in the years since then. Most items are photocopies, lovingly put into labeled folders, sometimes with my reading notes or even a summary I had written for members of a seminar, or an exercise just to make sure I understood the article.

When I say, “go through” my files, I mean reclaiming them as a proper research tool. For many years they have sat in cardboard banker’s boxes while we were tossed to and fro by every wind of economic injury. There was simply no time or energy to give these files proper curating. But now, I am going through each one and making an entry in a spreadsheet, complete with bibliographic information, subject tags, and so on. Eventually, I hope to have an expanding catalogue of these documents.

“But,” I can hear you say, “why not just look stuff up on the internet?” First, some of this material is so obscure that it isn’t on the Internet. On one occasion I was preparing a lecture and I wanted an image of a particular Phoenician inscription. Google images didn’t have it, but my notes from a class on Canaanite dialects did, so into the scanner it went. Second, one of my documents lacked some bibliographic information, so I did go and look it up online. I found the needed information on a web site that also helpfully told me that if I wanted to download a copy of the paper, I could do so for a mere $15. Fifteen clams for a paper that cost me maybe a buck to photocopy on a university Xerox machine. That got me to thinking… I have roughly 350 files in the collection, so at $15 each, that comes to $5,250. Of course some article would cost more; I’ve seen some journals that will stick you for at least $30 per paper. Others would cost nothing, thanks largely to those good souls who still hold to the share-and-share-alike informal communism with respect to information that has been part of the academic world since forever. It never occurred to me that this pile of paper might have appreciated in value, even if that value is only appreciated by me.

Then there is the all-too clear problem of data attrition and outright loss. My files contain items that are more than 30 years old. How many computer files do you still have from that long ago? Or even ten years ago? As I mentioned in another post, calling any electronic data collection an “archive” is absurd.  Paper is permanent, and I value that.

Besides, just looking it up isn’t the point. I think we rely too much, too heavily on the internet as the instant information dispenser when we should be using our heads more. My files (and my notebooks) are not just a place to stick information so I don’t have to remember it, they are a means to help me remember and process research. Going through these files is an exercise that refreshes me, reminds me of some truly interesting and excellent studies I had forgotten, and let’s me return to them with fresh eyes. There is also the tactile dimension; these documents have my highlights, my marginalia, notes, comments, and so on. Interacting with them is to reading something on the internet as an engaging face-to-face conversation in a funky coffee shop is to communicating through an SMS window: dull. Bloodless. Forgettable.

For some years I have found that the Internet has certain weaknesses that paper does not, and I am working to use the two together.

More on this later.

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