The Google Books Seduction

All good students of good academic integrity take some measure of pride in nailing citation styles. It is a symbol of one’s adherence to the rules, the tradition, the mace and mortarboard of the academy.

But the meticulous process we came to love/hate in high school quickly erupted into chaos.

As standards have been rising over the years and the rules ever in flux to match the evolution of digital media resources, so too did a number of artificial intelligences enter the marketplace for citation fixes. Whereas once you had to hire a student to type, write, or cite your paper to cheat, now you could copy and paste into a webpage and print out a bibliography. Just as instructors were becoming savvy with software that easily hunted down student plagiarism, the Easybib phenomena threatened to forever outsource the labor of citation.

I think this hard work in tracking the stuff down and citing it properly and honestly is what separated scholars from the amateurs and imitators, the tether that Bland Whitley was talking about, connecting us to the work of citation. Yet we deal with these problems constantly.

Take, for example, the Croffut and Morris classic, Military and Civil History of Connecticut During the War of 1861-1865. For those doing Civil War research, this definitive resource was vital to providing proper historiographical context for many topics.  However, the book was printed in the late 1860s, and the copies throughout the State system are artifacts that cannot leave the site  and sort of discourage one from touching it.  And why would you, when its complete on Google Books? Keyword search and boom. I never left my room and didn’t even have to break any bindings.

The question is, if it wasn’t on Google Books, would we have gone the extra mile to have that awkward transaction with the rare book Librarians on campus?

Our research and citation practices, like all digital innovation, enhances the ease of the work but makes it increasingly cloistered, and cuts us off with the people who manage the resources and the resources themselves. There is something dignified about banker’s lamps and carved mahogany work stations on my imaginary campus. Makes you wonder about the design of the Library of Congress, making the center of drudgerous research like a temple. Yet somehow, in our modern exceptionalism where we have no time for activities that cannot be accomplished while we are paying bills and streaming Netflix, we have deemed the time in the library as impractical.


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