In grade school, research was the stuff you had to get through before you could start to write. Now it’s a part of the process I relish. I like discovering new ideas and learning new concepts. But the research process feeds the part of me that craves some instant gratification, and some of the physical markers of productivity that I miss when I spend hours tapping pixelated characters onto a glowing screen —and then deleting most of them a week or an hour or a minute later.

Perhaps because I value research as a tangible part of the writing process, I especially like spending an afternoon, or two, or four in the library, foraging for books. A couple of weeks ago I visited from just about every corner of the local library. I built a rainbow stack: illustrated encyclopedia of Chinese mythology from the children’s reference collection, a pocket-sized meteorological field guide, a handsome green hardcover on the philosophy of “cloudspotting,” textbooks on climate change, and a couple of glossy magazines. I thump those down on a nice bench by the windows, and then comes the best part —digging in.I love cracking the stiff spine of a shiny new hardcover, or fluttering the clothy corners of a well-used paperback under my thumb. Smooth-paged texts smell like glue, and heavy papery volumes give off a whiff of potatoes and dirt.

Rewarding and rich as the physical search is for me, I’ll admit this type of info-hunting has its limits. I’m lucky to live a short walk or ride from several well-shelved libraries, but even then my bookbag is only so big, and the roads turn to impassable slush every three to five days. So I’m luckier still that my access to information doesn’t stop on a snowy Sunday. I can lift the lid of my laptop and open a portal to a massive collection that never shuts down, without spending a cent or an ounce of effort.

Of course, that’s not a new development for technology and not even a new one to me. I cobbled together many undergrad papers with JStor (and diet cola), and I’ve spent more than a few afternoons dallied in citation hopping via Google Scholar. Just recently, however, I’ve started to appreciate the full range of tools and resources that are available.

Diversity and convenience are the chief virtues of the virtual, but those don’t satisfy everything I want in a research expedition. I’ve used online databases for a long time, and yet I still need the library to make reading feel real. As I branch out to new (to me) tools and resources, I’m finding that I can come closer to approximating that multi-sensory satisfaction of capturing a source and making it my own. Part of the experience of a treasure is making one’s mark, whether it’s a fingerprint on the dusty cover, a sticky flag or an exuberant scribble, so whoever decided that e-comments should look like PostIt squares and highlighters default to neon yellow had readers like me in mind. Now I’m starting to play with specialized search engines that let me make maps or collages of results or key words , note-taking software that lets me dog-ear and highlight my favorite webpages, and a growing “e-brary” that allows me to put a digital text on my own online shelf, flip through page by page, and mark up my favorite parts without leaving my desk. I’ll admit my old-fashioned heart fluttered when I saw the “Export Citation” button on a publications database, and then the drop-down menu let me choose APA or MLA.

An online research hunt can take me farther afield than my Bean boots will carry me and allows me to stack up more material than I could ever carry. With the time I save I suppose I should be able to read twice as much, or I maybe I should go outside and stretch my legs.

For meta-nerdery, research new digital research toys at:


4 thoughts on “Stacks

    • Great question. Until recently, the “aha” moments were mostly on the old-fashioned library landscape, but part of what inspired this post is that I’m making literary discoveries online now, too. I think part of it is access and opportunity—there are increasing resources out there and I’m learning how to use them. Another, more personal but perhaps more significant change is that I’m starting to enter the virtual space with the same trust and curiosity that I learned a long time ago to bring to “real” book lands.

  1. If I am talking about “need” in the parlance of a toddler, as in “I needa cookie,” then I still find books I never knew I needed among shelves of used volumes in stores, yard sales, and flea markets. On the loftier plane of genuine research, I would still go with the good old library for complete books I need. I find a lot of information on the Internet, and that has become a very useful and time-saving approach for me. I uncover all sorts of things that are both helpful and intriguing, and I gather them up sometimes with abandon, knowing I can use or delete with ease. It is much, much more difficult to pick up or borrow an actual book and ignore it. I feel compelled not to ignore an actual book, even if I don’t finish reading it. At the very least, I leaf through and read some passages closely. I also study the pages themselves for their smell, their heft, and sometimes their clues to what a previous reader was eating. With e-books and online material, one may be able to see what someone else highlighted, but never, ever does one come across a spot of blood or spaghetti sauce, a teardrop or a water stain. Sometimes what I like best about books is the imagined lives of other readers. If that is a dried droplet of blood, what happened?

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