Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Dead Tree Version of the Internet: Using Books in the Digital Age High School

By: Nick Burns, Student, Marketing Intern, ABC-CLIO

To the publishers of the world be contented to know that you are, in fact, still needed. For high school research papers, at least. Of course, the volume of information available on the Internet has grown, is growing, and always will grow—that is the fundamental trait of the Internet—but this information remains (and likely will remain) for the most part scattered, undeveloped, and insufficiently specific for even high school research purposes. That is, if the high school student in question wants to write a halfway-decent paper.

I did want to write a halfway-decent paper earlier this year for my AP US History class, on the writings of Henry David Thoreau and how they shaped the later American conservation movement that starred personalities like the bravado-inebriated Teddy Roosevelt, the eccentric Gifford Pinchot, and the solitary saint of Yosemite, John Muir. The Internet was the place to start. Online resources, since they cater to reduced attention spans and to the most general of audiences, and thanks to the interconnectedness of the Internet, are usually the most useful to start with. The ABC-CLIO page on the American conservation movement, in the American History database, serves as an excellent example of this. I came across names I'd heard of (Thoreau, Emerson, Muir) but also important ones I hadn't (George Marsh was the most important of these). The broad network that is the Internet let me get the minimum level of knowledge to be able to navigate more complicated analyses of the time period.

However, an understanding of history, like an understanding of most things, is not complete without an array of biased and unbiased sources that must be synthesized into a complete picture. Coming to that understanding requires in these perspectives a fair amount of specificity, and perhaps even more importantly the right amount of bias—not bias, maybe, but inflection: not a sterile encyclopedia article, yet not a zealot ranting on a comments page—something that can only be found in books. What's more, a well-researched, well-written nonfiction book is a specific, personal investigation into an issue. That's what differentiates books from crowd-sourced Internet articles.

The databases were useful for gaining the level of knowledge necessary to be able to parse more sophisticated reference materials. To gain further detail and insight necessary to build a well-researched and well-thought-out enough argument it took me a backpack full of biographies, books on conservation history, books by Thoreau, Emerson, and Muir themselves, as well as essays by Wallace Stegner, and lastly the magnificently useful, diversely fascinating, and ridiculously heavy American Earth, Bill McKibben's compilation of the most important primary documents in American conservation history.

History papers can be—and, unfortunately, for the most part are—written using only Wikipedia articles, but these papers usually don't possess any valuable insights, unless those insights come solely from the (hormone-addled, nascent and na├»ve) mind of the kid writing it. In other words, the Internet—in the sense of trying to form conclusions about history—is a tool, and an endlessly useful one, but one that can only take you so far. A book—in the same sense—is a tool, but it can also be something greater: a journey, because it requires commitment on the part of both author and reader. This commitment makes insight possible in a way that no other medium can, and this is why books will always have a place in the in the world of high school research papers, and in the world at large.


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