Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Everyday Miracles . . .



. . . that we have all around us. What you're looking at above is part of page 387 of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 52, 1876. It's the first page of an article (which ran on for several pages and which I read in its entirety) on a person of great interest to me, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia--not incidentally the title of my biography of the gentleman. This article yielded up several interesting bits of information about Stephens that I was not aware of. This information would have certainly been helpful 35 years or so ago, when I was doing research for the book.

Research! I love research--how could I not? I am a historian. And the tools that are available for historical research, actually any kind of research, right now are nothing short of miraculous. For somebody who loves research, these Internet tools are just fantastic toys as well. The miracle-working agent here that turned up the Harper's article is Google Books, which is in the process of digitizing millions of books and magazines.* If Google has already gotten to it (apparently they've already digitized 7 million books), any book out of copyright can be accessed, read, then downloaded either in whole or in part. All these books can be searched and read online in their entirety, if that's what somebody wants to do. And if Google hasn't gotten to the book yet, don't worry, they will. If the book is still in copyright and either out of print or still in print, well, Google has recently completed a major agreement with authors and publishers to allow researchers to purchase books (or parts of books) in these categories.

Just think about what a boon it is for somebody interested in research on Alexander H. Stephens to be able to go to Google Books and in .15 seconds get access to 9,033 items (books, articles, and pamphlets) on the subject. In another .22 seconds these are skinnied down to the 4,846 items that can be viewed in full. (The others present only a few pages or just snippets.) I just cruised a few pages of hits and found about 10 items that would have been of great interest to me those many years ago. Of course all were available at that time, but I never found them. In the days before computers, it was impossible to find everything. This was true for even the best, the greatest scholars. I'm not at all discouraged, though, because I've got a number of history projects currently on deck, and both Google Books and Google Scholar, its companion miracle-worker, will supply me with far more material than I will ever be able to use.

And these thoughts are just whetting my appetite to see what these magnificent research tools will turn up on other subjects of interest: baseball--the Waner brothers; chess; all those other things that catch my interest.

*The company's goal is to digitized every book in the world. I'm quite sure Google will eventually succeed. Future humans will be actually dealing with computers like HAL and the one on the Starship Enterprise, computers that really do know everything.
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