For the last four weeks I have been spending forty-plus hours per week sitting at my computer at home doing research for my second monograph. It has forced me to consider the benefits of being able to research online but I also want to address the negative aspects too.
The great thing about researching online via databases to which your university has access is that you can work from any networked computer in your work office or from home. This saves you (and eventually your institution) a lot of money in travel and accommodation that would have been spent visiting archives.
The more general benefits of working from home are numerous especially for those with family or other commitments. You also save time and money commuting, making the most of your working day. Should you so desire (as I do!), your working day could be 7am-3pm instead of the traditional 9-5. Ironically some people actually find working at home allows them to be more focused than going to your office where colleagues are liable to pop in and break your train of thought.
The power of the keyword search facility on these databases has revolutionized the way we research. I can now search through hundreds of thousands of documents at the click of a button, something that simply would not have been possible 30 years ago, meaning that it is easier to track themes or people across time in a particular set of records.
But, there are some downsides too. As a historian, the alternative to online research is going to libraries and archives. Being able to hold the actual documents in your hand and experience what people in the past experienced cannot be matched by reading a document online.
Some people also struggle with reading huge amounts of text online. I have noticed my eyes and brain getting more tired staring at a computer than actually being in an archive. You also have to be very careful about developing RSI. Your desk should be set up in such a way as to avoid muscle or eye strain of any kind.
Working on a computer at home is also incredibly isolating. When working in an archive or library you might get to discuss your interests with staff and other readers. And also more prosaically, you get to visit another town or area: a change of environment can be inspiring. For example, having intelligent thoughts comes naturally in the hallowed halls of the Bodleian Library in Oxford!
So, as an academic, while I will never underestimate the benefits online research has brought to my profession, there are some reasons why a visit to an archive or library will always be the first choice.