The Hunt for Information: Online vs. Offline

Over the past two weeks, I have been visiting the great north woods of Copper Harbor, Michigan. The peaceful, quiet town, free from anxiety and pollution, is also free from 4g and wifi. So I have decided to write about the experience of writing without wifi and what this experiment would entail for my research. To do this, I decided to check out local libraries and compare the resources available there to those available online.

Upon first exploring the Copper Harbor library, which was right down the road from my cabin, I was surprised by the selection. Reference works from Britannica. Webster’s New 20th Century Unabridged Dictionary. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. All for a population of only 50. There was also a wide art section ranging from Warhol, to Eskimo Art, to Matisse and Manet.

Copper Harbor Library

The library had a whole separate room for Philosophy and Existentialism. It overflowed with the works of Aristotle, Blaise Pascal, Karl Marx, and Martin Heidegger. The library also contained volumes from historians like Edward Gibbon and Plutarch. The stand-in librarian explained that the library’s owner, Elsebet Jegstrup, was a philosophy teacher. She donated the  majority of the library’s materials from her personal collection. Jegstrup had even included printed-off PDFs from philosophical articles, an interesting way in which online resources trickled into the offline world.

As it turned out, Jegstrup was not alone. Locals donated most of the books in Copper Harbor’s library collection. At first, I assumed that, excluding Jegstrup’s eye-opening collection, these donations would mostly consist of fiction. But when I stopped by the library a second time, I noticed a table marked “$1 Book Sale.” The sale contained school-issued psychology books, books on politics and political theory, and staples like Jane Eyre and Hamlet. There was even some Dante.

Book Sale Resources from CP Library

The library also offered a generous religion section. The substitute librarian who was in during my first visit to the library stated that he was a retired preacher for an Episcopal church. He told me that he lives locally, between this town (Copper Harbor) and the town of Eagle Harbor. He also mentioned that he used this library as his main source of information and to dig up resources for his sermons. The small, house-sized library also contained an array of language books, with dictionaries and translations in French, Spanish, Danish, German, and Italian. Although this section only consisted of about 10 books, it offered a larger selection than that available at the Houghton library, which was to be the site of my next visit.  

On Thursday, I made my way to the Houghton Portage Lake District Library, about an hour away from Copper Harbor.

Portage Lake District Library

While I was there, I decided to go through the bookshelves and check out the local resources. The broader sections covered birds, astronomy, archeology, western civilization, cooking, child-rearing, dog-breeding, naturalist perspectives on animals and plant life, dictionaries and thesauruses. Librarians had dedicated bookcases to art and home projections and collecting, along with separate sections on artists like Davinci and Rembrandt.

The library had records on music too, covering genres like jazz, the history of women in country music, and famous musicians like Bob Dylan and the Beatles. There was also a wide range of books on sports. These covered coaching and drilling, but also harrowing sports stories like  Pat Conroy’s autobiographical “My Losing Season” and biographies like John Feinstein’s “Next Man Up.” And, of course, there were over two dozen of Chilton’s volumes on vehicle repair manuals through the 1980s and 1990s. 

This library also included an array of publications on Presidents, covering everyone from George Washington to Lyndon B. Johnson. This section even provided a handful of Bob Woodward books on President George W. Bush. The war section included at least 25 books on the Holocaust and World War II. There was also an ample supply of books on the Civil War. However, aside from these two focal points, the war section didn’t seem to be very extensive. 

Scattered miscellaneous books on other, less common topics were shelved amongst other unrelated works. I found two books on Chicago, no longer than 400 pages each. My hometown was one of the few major cities covered specifically. The others were London and New York City. Sections on Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, as well as the Middle Ages each offered only a few books. The library also housed four books on Mayan civilization.

The Houghton library’s geography section had numerous books on Britain, Ireland, Mexico, the U.S., Norway, and Sweden. However, the more I looked at this shelf, the more I realized that few of the books covered anywhere but North America, the U.K., and Scandinavia. 

The Portage library also had a minimal literature section. It housed a few canonical British works, a random group of Alfred Hitchcock mysteries, and the Oxford book of 20th Century Ghost Stories. Although Houghton provided a strong biography and autobiography section, the library seemed to offer the same number of takes on Mark Twain’s life that it did of his works, four.

The library piled education texts next to subjects ranging from the evolution of online corporations like Google and eBay and books on the Chinese government’s international relations. Librarians shelved books on child illnesses and disorders, ADHD, and hyperactivity with books on the history of wood. Those about Houghton’s booming copper business shared shelves with books on solar and fusion energy. Books about American health and dietary habits lay side by side with six or seven publications on nuclear safety. 

There library also had a section dedicated to health. This primarily featured books on aging, weight loss, and home remedies. There was also a large variety of books on medical topics such as alzheimer’s and cancer. However, there seemed to be a smaller collection of available resources covering autism. And the few texts discussing topics like anorexia and depression were shelved here too, with no division between physical and mental health. 

In contrast, the internet allows near-global access to information stored physically in specific locations. This makes it possible for researchers to use the resources of cities they might not have the means to enter. Many national studies are also widely accessible because of their availability online. This allows internet users to find information on various topics easily with the aid of a search bar. In-depth studies by doctors and researchers have limited readership when restricted to the physical sphere, but when they are added to the large world of online resources, even laypeople can find and peruse these works. So, in the absence of internet access, one stands to lose a very wide pool of source material and information. 

But those who lack access to online resources, may rely on experts and other researchers studying the topic at hand. These people can often provide background information, anecdotes, and accounts from real life experiences, as well as context for the information in studies and papers. These contextualizations in particular are often hard to find online.

However, although books are prime learning resources, they have their downfalls. Books can contain false information. The same may be said of other offline information sources like personal interviews. Personal views may obstruct the nature of a study or skew information. So can personal motives. Such is the case in police reports tainted by lying tactics. Politicians who have notably lied while in office, such as Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, also come to mind. Researchers may detriment their information’s reliability by using only one treatise, interview, or source. But this problem stems less from the offline nature of these resources and more from the inherent limitations of using only one perspective in research. Editors and scholars generally vet and fact check reference works and published studies.

This is not always the case with online information. Additionally, the line between reliable and unreliable sources can blur online. I recently discussed the reliability of information released on Twitter, where some accounts don’t hesitate to release faulty information, although only 140 characters worth, to the masses. But not all of these flagrant tweet-lies come from fake accounts, purposely misleading “news” accounts, or satire accounts retweeted out of context. Hackers write some of these fake tweets using ordinary Twitter accounts.

More than anything else, location, demographics and interests determine the resources physically available in places like Copper Hill or Portage. Too often providing unbiased perspectives is under-prioritized. This is really where the online supersedes the offline. Individuals far from large cities can find many of their resources online using personal or local library computers. However, this access is often harder to come by in towns like Copper Hill. 

The internet will always have both positive and negative impacts on our daily lives. It will continue to provide both accurate and faulty information. But the great online globe’s resources and support will continue to aid researchers. As will libraries, books and scholars. Researchers, whether they be students, professionals, or just curious individuals, stand to gain from both online and offline sources.

Lauren Peterson