On February 26 I had the chance to be on a really fun and thoughtfully-organized panel over at Davis Library, our main library at UNC. The idea was to get a few faculty (two of anthropology, one from library and information science, and two from law) to talk about how we research. The audience were academic librarians here at UNC and I think they thought of us sort of like zoo creatures -- or human research subjects, anyway. (Michelle Meyer could tell us whether they needed IRB approval!)
Some of the talk was of simple questions, like how do we keep up with developments in our field; others were research intensive, like what are our current projects and what library resources are we using for them. It was pretty interesting to hear the resources the social scientists were using. Unsurprisingly, there was lots of talk of GIS and huge databases. The professor from the library and information sciences school spoke about one of her projects, on the first woman librarian at Oxford's Bodleian Library. Pretty cool stuff. Makes me jealous, because I'm pretty sure that book will get a lot of sales! Perhaps one of these days I'll write a book about Mrs. Lincoln's Librarian's cat. That would be like catnip to acquisitions librarians.
My use of library resources seems rather pedestrian by comparison -- or maybe old fashioned, though in a digital kind of way. Unsurprisingly I rely heavily on westlaw and then some of the more specialized databases for historical sources -- like books.google and some of the propriety databases (a couple of my favorites are making of modern law and the Sabin catalog).
I'm old enough to remember having to go to the library and reel through microfilm if I wanted to look at a seventeenth century book. No need for that now -- I can get every extant book published in English (and in the UK, even if not in English) at my office via the library website. Too bad these days my research isn't focused on the seveenth century.
But as for the nineteenth century stuff, most of what I need in terms of law books and cases are on-line and full-text searchable (thank God!) We also through the magic of ancestry.com (and one of the databases I learned about, heritage -- which I think is essentially a cut-down version of ancestry), have census records on-line. This makes possible serious social history that would have been essentially impossible even fifteen years ago. I'd still like to see more in terms of newspapers (especially newspapers) and pamphlets scanned in. From my perspective, the books.google scanners can't get to that stuff soon enough. To borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin, "scan, baby, scan."
All of the widely available information puts a huge premium on interpretation. Once you could make a career in history by finding information; now that a lot of it is much more easily accessible, there's the often more difficult question of what it all means. I can remember saying when I was in law school that I thought when westlaw put the pre-Civil War cases on-line that would transform how we thought about legal history -- I think we've taken advantage of that mass of data less effectively than we ought to. But we have seen lots more connections between judges than we had previously and I think we're seeing just how unified legal thought was, north, south, and west in the years leading into war. (Along these lines, I might observe that Vernon Burton's presidential address for the Southern Historical Association makes great use of books.google data. But that's a story for another time.)
Then as a sort of fun question at the end my colleague Sara Sampson, who organized the panel, asked what is the most recent book you've read that isn't related to your research. And she added, in what format did you read it? Everyone else had pretty creative answers, though I must admit that since I essentially never read anything that isn't related to my research, I had to stretch back a ways for that answer, to Haldor Laxness' Paradise Lost. (And of course Sara asked about the format in which we read the book -- everyone else was reading on their kindle or ipad. Not me, unsurprisingly.)
But here's in some ways the most interesting part of this: because the audience was filled with academic librarians, a bunch of them were tweeting the panel. And the tweets give I think a really cool picture of how different people viewed the event. Sort of like reading through student essays from the pre-Civil War era to get a sense of the range of ideas of students on the same topic. They're at @DonnaBickford @JoMCParkLib.