June 17th, 2006

Pirate Treasure

Internet, libraries, and research

All the entries about libraries and the Internet point in one direction:  that when what is precious and rare is instantly and always available it becomes less rare; does it become less precious?

A sweet and beautifully written article in the new New Yorker (given over to war writing, for no stated reason) by Samuel Hynes is a case in point.  Hynes was a flyer in WWII who after the war and through Korea remained in service and flying, but at the same time went back to working for advanced degrees in English literature and philosophy.  (A nice prolepsis has him flying a light plane into Washington D.C. somewhat anxiously, as a Bolivian airliner recently crashed there in the thick traffic, killing New Yorker cartoonist Helen Hokinson, among others).  He tries to do research on the work of T.E. Hulme, now forgotten (and even then somewhat faded) British thinker and litterateur.  But he is in North Carolina on an air base, and there is no large library near him where he can do the necessary research.  How can he get new material about Hulme?  Well he learns that up in Washington, at St. Elizabeth's, Ezra Pound is incarcerated.  Pound knew Hulme (and knew everyone who knew Hulme).  SO Hynes requisitions the plane and flies into DC to meet and talk with him.  Read the whole not only for a good story but for Hynes's beautiful restrained writing.

But we wouldn't have to do that.  We could just Google. 

Those Appia pictures (I showed one, but Google Images produced a dozen in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye) that I once found in an obscure book I had no good reason to look into and came upon as though it were pirate treasure lost and found.

Looking through Pyncon's V recently and marvelling at the marshalling of small historical nuggets of info, allusions, bits of color and local lore in the historical parts.  Unable to tell which he had made up, which gleaned, and from where?  He loved and urged research on writers, and I commend his essay on it (in Slow Learner) to my students.  But I write historical fiction, and I can get stuff with the click of a mouse.  When I was writing about Byron's London, I wanted my hero to get a letter.  So how much did one cost, how was it delivered, how long did it take?  The very first Google result when I typed in something like "stamps postage Britiain 1820s" gave me a learned site where not only was every question answered but where I could look over actual letters stamped and mailed in 1820, how they were mailed, received, paid for, how the stamps were cancelled, etc. etc.  (In 1820 you paid for a letter when you received it, not when you mailed it; this changed after the Govt. realized that people were checking arriving mail for spam and deleting before reading -- in effect.)

So do the gains equal the losses?  I could restrict responses to those who remember the gains (and losses) of the previous all-book-based system, but I won't.