Although the internet, and internet-based research, has been around for a relatively short time, it’s hard to remember a time when everyone didn’t use the internet to learn. Today, we turn to our favorite search engine (probably Google) to answer every question and dilemma, from trivia like when the Battle of Hastings occurred, to what you should wear on a job interview, or what foods help you sleep better. While the internet can provide fast, if conflicting answers, sometimes taking your research offline is better. In another post I’ll go into the benefits of consulting experts for answers, but today I want to talk about utilizing books for your research.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m in the process of writing a second draft of my young adult (YA) supernatural fiction novel. The story takes place in present-day Colorado, but a big part of the backstory deals with Colorado’s silver mining boom in the late nineteenth century. As a historian, consulting books should be second nature, but even I’ve drifted from that and turned to the internet for answers. Now there’s nothing wrong with using the internet for research, but at some point you should take it offline, especially if it’s a big project.
The internet can be a great start, but it’s only one component of the research process.
In my research on silver mining, I’ve found some good general information online. Dates and places, some great maps of mining areas in Colorado, interesting photographs; I’ve even discovered some good places to search for primary sources (a text, photo/picture, poster, movie, etc. produced during the time period that the researcher is studying) on silver mining and Colorado’s early years. But I knew I was missing crucial details that would provide a more complete picture of daily life in late nineteenth-century Colorado. I had a framework, but the details of the picture were fuzzy, and any good story relies on vivid details to create settings that feels true-to-life.
So I went to the library. I got a few books on silver mining in Colorado and started reading. Online sources, in particular websites, blog posts, etc. tend to be shorter and more focused—readers expect things to be short and to-the-point. Books however have the time to go into more depth and detail. Already I’ve learned a lot more details about mining than I ever learned from the websites I’ve studied. Not only do books have the advantage of more information and details on a subject, but books are peer-reviewed materials, meaning that other experts on the subject have reviewed the information for accuracy. That is one of the biggest advantages books (and peer-reviewed journals) have over other online material. You have to be more careful and do a lot more work to figure out if a website provides accurate, reliable information—and sometimes it’s impossible to authenticate the information and the author’s credentials. With books on the other hand you know right away who the author is, and who published the book, you can verify the material—and when you’re doing research, that’s the most important thing.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the internet is infallible and all-knowing. It’s not. Just because you read it online doesn’t make it true, and just because you can’t find something online doesn’t mean the information doesn’t exist. It’s a collection of information produced by people—and not all of them are trained or certified experts. Anyone can put something online, that’s why wikipedia should be read with a huge grain of salt, if at all. So if you want to do some real research, start online, but expand your horizons—don’t disdain the books. It has a lot more than you think.
Books on Silver Mining in Colorado:
Leyendecker, Liston E., Bradley, Christine A., and Duane A. Smith. The Rise of the Silver Queen: Georgetown, Colorado, 1859-1896. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2005.
Rohrbough, Malcolm J. Aspen: The History of a Silver Mining Town 1879-1893. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000.