Friday, October 10, 2008

An Encomium to Google

A while ago Marc Aronson mentioned an article in Atlantic Monthly on his blog, Nonfiction Matters. The piece discussed the effect of newer technologies upon the way we process information and perhaps even think. One point Marc described was ”that the effect of the kind of searches Google makes possible is to make us speedy, rapid readers who trawl for bits and bites who grab at quick info-snacks, and no longer have the patience to sink into a book, or to follow a deep and complex argument.”

I don’t know if that is true; Marc didn’t either. And I certainly hope that the Internet and Google in particular don’t put nonfiction authors out of business. But I have to confess I love what Google searches have done for me as one of those nonfiction authors.

Obvious disclaimer: The Internet will never replace the depth and perspective that you can get in books. Or the immediacy you get in primary documents. Or the detail you get from interviews. And, yes, I understand and always explain to kids that not all web sites are created equal and must be checked for accuracy. Nasa.gov for space info, yes. SpaceshotBob’sguidetothe17planets.com, no.

That said, let me mention a few ways Google has changed my life. A while ago, I was reading a book and noticed an anecdote in a footnote that seemed like a promising book idea. I googled the author of this book, got his email address and was soon told this story came from a monograph. He knew the name of the guy who wrote it and that he taught in Denmark. No problem, a Google search quickly gave me his email address at University of Copenhagen. Within two days of my seeing this citation, its author offered me a copy—in English or Danish, no less.

Part of what people like about my books, The Truth About Poop and Gee Whiz: It’s All About Pee, are the weird assortment of facts they’d never heard before. That information was not so easy to come by. There are very few adult books on excretia—a few on poop, virtually none on pee. Sure you can find other sources to read up on sewer systems in ancient Rome. The toileting habits of European royals are sometimes encased in books about daily life in the Dark Ages or the court of the Sun King. Reports by biologists may include descriptions of the sloth’s habits as well. But those facts can be found, in part, because you know what you’re looking for.

Sometimes Google is best when you’re searching something but don’t know quite what. Of course if you type “poop” or “pee” in the dialog box and press search, you’ll get a lot of info—none you can use in a kids’ book! But try “feces” or “urine” and you’re in business. Then when you can no longer stand trolling through 8,000 pages of stuff, try putting two words together. They could be sort of predictable like feces and elephant –who wouldn’t want to know what that weighs? Or you can just throw two words together—“urine” and “military,” for example. Seems sort of random, actually it was, but look at one of the things I found and used at http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn6185.

Happy hunting!

2 comments:

Vicki Cobb said...

I like to think of facts as decoration for the narrative-driving concepts in my books. I am an expert googler and spend hours searching the web mostly fact checking but often trolling for new leads. I figure that my time doing research on the web, with all of my expertise,is a valuable part of the finished product and another reason for people to read a nonfiction book by an author. As children's book nonfiction authors, no only do we know how to decorate concepts with facts, but we know what to leave out. It's a well kept secret that if you want to know something new about a subject, read a kid's book on it.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Another blessing of the internet is the reproduction of many primary documents: old books, articles, letters, proclamations, etc. I've found references in footnotes and bibliographies to 19th century publications and despaired of locating them, only to find that some scholar has uploaded them for me. What a thrill!