I know: everything can be found on the Internet, right? As someone who grew up with a reasonably decent public library within a few blocks of my home and who is ancient enough to have written papers for two degrees (last one completed in 2002) among rows of dead-tree books, I’d like to make a plea for taking advantage of these free and useful institutions.
Library quality & size
I will be a snob here and admit that I prefer self-contained, multi-floor public or academic libraries. Like I said, the library near my childhood home had, for example, a wide variety of science and science fiction texts that I could not find at the average Kroch’s & Brentano’s then or Barnes & Noble today. I also have enjoyed the copious amount of research material I’ve found at my university libraries and the downtown branch of the Orange County Public Library here in Orlando. However, I am dismayed by what I find at local branches (I’m looking at you, Southwest Orlando), which can be about as useful as an airport bookstore.
If you have to do serious research, a well-funded public or university/college library is going to have (or have access to) enough texts on any subject in the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress system that you can write a ten-page paper or get a solid grounding in a topic that will not get from Wikipedia.
And let’s not forget the most important factor when working with any library: assuming you have a card, you can borrow books for free. Or you can sit among the stacks and poke through them, again for free.
Extent of resources
Among the most useful things that libraries offer that are difficult to obtain online are reproductions of newspaper articles going back in some cases two or three centuries. If you don’t know how to use microfilm or microform–not everything has been converted to electrons yet, sorry–libraries have some wonderful people called librarians who can walk you through the process. And if you want an actual hard copy, you might pay ten cents per page, but that’s going to be cheaper than paying for a full membership to each newspaper or magazine you’re trying to research just to get a look at their archives.
And those wonderful librarians do more than walk you through microfilm, etc. They are usually bookish individuals who have an in-depth knowledge of the library, it’s contents, and how to find what you need. They think in keywords and can suggest some you might not have thought of. They might know of reference books that have indexes and bibliographies better than a list of articles you’d find on Google.
The joys of analog and serendipity
One of my least-favorite reference books in high school (but my favorite in college) was the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. While it looks like they’ve gone online now, these bound volumes will list practically any topic you care to name in alphabetical order for a given stretch of time (say, January-June 1999) and then will provide a list of any publication that touches on that topic. Yes, this is a keyword search in paper form.
However, just by flipping through the pages, you might find something by serendipity that you would not find sitting in front of your favorite search engine. In similar fashion, you might find a promising source walking through the stacks that you would not necessarily encounter on the computer or even in a card catalog (never mind, I can feel my inner horse-and-buggy advocate getting laughed at enough with this post).
The point is, just by doing physical browsing of the bookshelves, you might encounter a book that works for you that wouldn’t have occurred to you otherwise. For example, given my inclinations, it might not surprise you to learn that I’ve spent a lot of time among the TL 787 (astronautics/space travel) section of the library. However, take a look at what else is in the same neighborhood as those shelves:
TL500-777 Aeronautics. Aeronautical engineering
TL780-785.8 Rocket propulsion. Rockets
TL787-4050 Astronautics. Space travel
Right nearby is TL780-785.8, Rocket propulsion and rockets. Or, if I thought I needed a high-level overview of the topic, I could walk around a little further and look at TL500-777. And you never know what else you might find on your way toward your intended department. On one random ambling through the Northern Illinois University library, I found bound volumes containing the legislative record of England’s Houses of Parliament going back to the 1600s. Ever do impulse shopping at the mall? Same theory, but this sort of shopping helps your brain and is a whole lot easier on your wallet.
Quality of sources
Because libraries are houses (primarily) of books, most of the resources you’ll find there are documents or texts that a publisher considered printing. Publishing companies are notoriously stingy; they’re not going to waste ink on a lot of dreck–some, to be sure, but not nearly as much dreck as you’d find on the internet, where anyone with a computer and a dream can hold forth on a topic and you think they’re valid because their opinion matches yours.
And, again, your friendly neighborhood librarian can point you to sources that are considered valid, trustworthy, or just plain good.
Mind you, physical libraries might not have exactly the book you want on hand this instant, but they might be part of a larger network that can procure the book for you–again, at no charge–if you’re willing to wait a week or so. Libraries favor the well-prepared, non-last-minute researchers.
Given my rather esoteric taste in books, the only resource I know that’s comparable to university library systems is Amazon.com.* And what’s the downside of Amazon? That’s right: you might be paying out the kazoo for a book from which you need pages, especially if they don’t have it in stock and it’s only available through their secondhand network. Some of the books I’d really like to have start at $700. However, I’ve also found that libraries have access to vocal recordings of books that you can borrow online. I saved myself $140 with just two visits like that. Do I really need to own some of them? Probably not. Libraries also reward the patient. And the cheap.
I need libraries when I’m doing in-depth research on a topic. The internet is good up to a point, and that point stops when you need to read more than ten pages from a specific book that is not reprinted online. Paper books are still considered more prestigious than electronic books simply because of their physical existence. Also, books are less likely to be changed and edited once they’re in print until they sell out.
Yes, yes: paper can burn and electrons can disappear at the pressing of a button. I get into similar discussions with people who ask why I love paper books vs. Kindle. If you can find an electronic version of a reference book you really need, go for it. Still, sometimes the best, most useful, and most pertinent information in a given field will be written down so that it won’t be lost. It might not seem right or fair, but that’s reality. But, again, most of that really good stuff can be found in a library, and, again, it’s free.
* Full disclosure: I usually want to keep many of the books I want for research, so I’m now a dedicated Amazon customer. Plus, I’m one of those heathens who bends the corners of books and underlines things on the paper. However, if I’ve got to do some research and dig up some books that I know I’m only going to read once and not mark up, a decent library is still my go-to place for finding the resources I need.