I am working on a small research project at the moment that requires me to make use of an electronic database held by my university. It’s called Early English Books Online and will be familiar to those of you who are English Literature scholars or Historians. Basically this database has digitised almost everything published in England in English between 1473 and 1700! As you can imagine this has radically changed the way many of us do research: but is that a good thing?
Using the EEBO database has meant that, for this project at least, I can do everything from the comfort of my own office. I can access it at home via my university log in details so I don’t even need to go into my university. The benefits are obvious. I can do research as and when it suits me, I only have to go into my office at home and begin. No money is needed from my university or from external sources to cover travel expenses to and from a library or accommodation while I am there. And on a practical level, the database allows me to sort through thousands of books at the click of a mouse, something that wouldn’t have been possible had I got to physically read every one.
But there are some disadvantages too. On a purely aesthetic level, reading a book online is not so enjoyable as having the real thing in your hand. Working at a computer for extended periods of time produces specific health and safety concerns too, with the threats of eyesight problems, back ache from poorly laid out desks, and RSI from typing and mouse use among a few of the difficulties. I am not saying that extended work in archives doesn’t also have its risks, but I am not sure that spending even more time in front of a computer is a good thing!
There are also the isolation issues. While it may be very convenient for me to do even more of my work from home, I do enjoy getting out and going to archives and libraries where there is often the chance of meeting like minded scholars and discussing our work. These sorts of place are great for networking if you spot someone reading a book that you yourself have worked on. The scholar beavering away in their own room using electronic databases cuts themselves off from this avenue. Of course, the benefits outweigh the problems but I think it’s always important to be aware of the impact that technological innovations have on our working practices.