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When the BOOK? When the Net?

by Jamie McKenzie

From Now On: A Monthly Electronic Commentary on Educational Technology Issues
Vol 5, No 6 -- February-March, 1995

Sometimes the BOOK is better than the NET!

Perhaps it goes without saying. But bandwagons have a way of distorting reality and swaying behavior. All of a sudden the world is rushing willy-nilly onto the Information Highway in a dash to explore just about any topic and any question. It's as if they believe the NET can illuminate any subject.

Well, it s time we set the record straight and point out the weaknesses of conducting research on the NET. When is a BOOK the best place to turn? When is the NET the best source? When will a CD-ROM encyclopedia or periodical collection outperform them both?

1. When it comes to history and complex issues . . .

A student recently asked me where was the best place to learn about the Cuban Missile Crisis on the Internet. I dashed onto the Net full of confidence, having recently located the VIRTUAL LIBRARY for HISTORY. I thought I had a wonderful list of sources which would return hundreds of valuable documents. Not so! More than an hour later I was still wandering around with almost no information to show for my efforts.

I stepped off the highway and pondered my failure. Why was there so little about the Cuban Missile Crisis on the Net?

I began with profit as a hypothesis. People who study something for thousands of hours, collecting and reviewing hundreds of documents, usually try to sell their work to a publisher. The publisher then tries to make money by selling a book. I could find references to such books on the Net, but the books themselves were still in hard copy formats. No one had rushed to place free electronic versions on the Net.

Carefully synthesized information is still a valuable commodity in our society. One pays for such information, either by purchasing a book or subscribing to pay-per-view data services such as DIALOG.

It reminded me of my first glimpse at Internet versions of magazines offered in the Electronic News Stand. I rushed to open a few of these free documents and found they were little more than Tables of Contents or teaser introductions to lead articles. If you want the real stuff, you subscribe.

The highest quality free information on the NET is generally the governmentally funded studies which have been conducted by university scholars and scientists who have filed them for global sharing on their gopher sites.

Historical work on issues like the Cuban Missile Crisis is in generally in short supply.

A VERONICA search across gopher sites turned up a dozen documents, the majority of which were either e-mail messages between amateur historians debating the crisis or were documents which refused to open because their file server was not operating:

Search GopherSpace by Title word(s) (via PSINet): Cuban Missile Crisis

1. Cuban Missile Crisis (fwd).
2. Re: Cuban Missile Crisis .
3. Re: Cuban Missile Crisis (fwd).
4. Kruschev/Cuban Missile Crisis.
5. Cuban Missile Crisis.
6. Re: Cuban Missile Crisis .
7. Re: Cuban Missile Crisis (fwd).
8. RE: Cuban Missile Crisis (fwd).
9. Cuban Missile Crisis.
12. Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis/
13. The brink : Cuban missile crisis, 1962 - by David I did find one valuable resource, a research question filed for students of a college course in Cold War International Relations which pointed students toward, of all things, books:


Rachael Bradley TR HIS 1992
Beth Hartland TR HIS 1992
David Morgan AI HIS 1991
Paul Owen AI HIS 1992 Andrew Robinson CS HIS 1992

TITLE: To What extent did the Kennedy Administration's management of relations with Castro's Cuba and the USSR, leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, illustrate its general practice in the conduct of "Cold War" confrontations? READ: 145 [Divine]; 167 [Heath], 169 [Miroff], 173 [Schlesinger]; 287 [Ambrose], 299[Gardner], 300[Garrison & Gleason], 301 [Graebner], 311 [LaFeber], 314 [McCormick], 316 [Paterson], 318 [Schulzinger] for background--i.e. there are plenty of good general books. Plus--or just use some of these mongraphs, if you prefer:

Graham T. ALLISON 327.73092 Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (1971)
Jules R. BENJAMIN 327.73097 The United States & the Origins of the Cuban Revolution (1990)
Michael R. BESCHLOSS 327.73094 The Crisis Years: Kennedy & Khrushchev, 1960-1963 (1991)

(The actual list was much longer).

I also encountered a few good documents, such a letter from Kruschev to Kennedy. It seems that the Net provides some excellent archival information at times.

All in all, the pickings were very slim. I began to form a generalization that the Net was better for currently breaking issues than it was for older questions which had been the focus of serious scholarly thought.

Authors in the 1990s will most often seek publication of their best work in hard copy journals and magazines. It is rare that they would start by posting them to the Net, especially since publishers are reluctant to print such electronically compromised articles.

The best thinking on topics such as the Cuban Missile Crisis is probably still captive of the old technology. Until someone purchases the electronic rights to those articles and books with an eye toward making them available on the Net, we may still find the book the best place to start our inquiry regarding certain questions.

2. Books provide synthesized information . . .

Because most of us grew up with hard copy books serving a central role for research we conducted from high school on, most of us probably haven t stopped to think very long about their advantages over the kind of material available on the Internet.

A carefully crafted book on a complex non-fiction question is often the result of someone spending 18 months carefully collecting and then culling thousands of documents in order to distill all that information down into a relatively compact parcel we call a book.

Books save us a whole lot of trouble - which is both a blessing and a curse - as the selection and culling process can be a powerful aid to bias. If we want to evaluate Kennedy s leadership, we can consult half a dozen books, find the authors opinions, weigh their evidence and build out own case.

If we tried to conduct the same inquiry from scratch, it might take us 18 months to sort through the Info-Glut. Good books have done the sorting for us. If the thinking of the author is sound, books take us quickly to the insight level and they also provide enough data to show the foundations of the author s thesis.

Researching on the Internet, in contrast, usually requires us to start with raw ingredients. If we hope to reach the insight level, we must first cull through the Info-Glut, sorting and sifting our way toward meaning.

3. Electronic books would be even better . . .

This is in no way meant to suggest that hard copy books need maintain their dominant role. If we could convince the publishers of books and journals to make their files available on the Information Highway without exorbitant fees, the searching capabilities of new software might make such electronic books superior to the hard copy versions.

Imagine being able to scan quickly a dozen books on Kennedy s decision, locating the crucial passages and sections in mere moments. Electronic text can be swiftly downloaded and collected in formats which make later consideration and review much easier than the antiquated note cards we grew up using.

For those who have used electronic books on the Internet (Project Gutenberg, for example), the power of such formats is evident. We should all work to expand the texts available throughout the gopher sites of the world so that history, social science and complex issues can be explored via the Internet.

4. CD-ROM may also beat out the Internet . . .

EBSCO s Full Text Elite contains thousands of contemporary magazine articles, some of which include full text. A search for Cuban Missile Crisis calls up 73 documents containing those words. Quite an improvement over my search with Veronica.

Until one begins to survey the 73 articles and discovers that almost every one of them contains nothing more than an oblique reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most compare Clinton s handling of some foreign policy crisis to Kennedy s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The two or three most promising lead the reader to a review of a BOOK! A few short paragraphs leave us with little insight and fewer facts. Buy the book!

It seems that CD-ROM collections of current periodicals are not much more helpful than the Internet when it comes to study of events which took place 34 years ago.


We keep coming back to the book. For certain questions it remains an excellent piece of information technology. In many cases, the carefully distilled information contained in a book may provide superior access to insight. Library media specialists and classroom teachers whose students are lucky enough to have broad scale access to the Internet need to carefully consider when the resources available on the Internet are worth mining. Chances are, given the current nature of the information available on the highway, time may often be spent more efficiently and productively using other information resources.

Editor: Jamieson McKenzie, Ed.D.
Network 609
424 14th Street - Suite 202
Bellingham, WA 98225
Telephone 206-647-8759
Internet: jmckenzie@msmail.bham.wednet.edu