Research without the workout

The sulpture at the entrance of the Kresge Engineering Library, in UC Berkeley's Bechtel Building.Though sometimes exciting, my job is more grunt work than glamour. I was recently visiting UC Berkeley and walked by the Kresge Engineering Library. I couldn’t resist going in and having a quick look at this place where I had spent so much time in 1998/1999. This also got me thinking about other libraries where I’d probably spent a day a month: like the Robertson Engineering and Science Library at the University of Edinburgh and the Barker Engineering Library at MIT. It made me realize that, in more than five years back at Imperial College London, I’d probably made it into the library an average of once a year. The reason for the change, of course, is technology.

My routine used to be to go in monthly to look at the new journals, laid out out on racks in alphabetical and/or subject order. (I explain this only because I’m not sure how long libraries will continue have current periodicals sections like this!) First I’d look at the table of contents, then go to bodies of the papers I thought might be interesting, and—if I was still convinced—I would finally go and make photocopies of the paper for me to read properly and hopefully to pitch as stories to editors. I would go home after several hours on my feet, a little poorer but with a big stack of (hopefully very valuable) paper.

Of all the libraries, Barker, in the Great Dome at MIT, was by far my favorite. As I remember it, the huge periodicals room had the current journal racks laid out in a huge circle, with armchairs in the middle. There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of obscure journals (obscure to anyone outside the field): things like The Journal of Bridge Engineering, IEEE Systems, Man, and Cybernetics,and Advances in Applied Ceramics.Of course most of them meant nothing to me: I probably looked at 10% of the issues on the shelves. but there’s really something humbling about knowing just how tiny a slice of knowledge one can even aspire to get to grips with.

These days I can sit at my desk and search hundreds or thousands of new articles for particular subjects that I’m interested in. I can download them, read them, and discard or pitch them without ever having to print a thing. And instead of making a monthly trek to the library, I can check for new stuff weekly or even daily if I want. Not to mention having access to material that won’t come out on paper for days or weeks.

Of course, there are downsides: I can’t flip through a journal for interesting figures or see the relationsips between the different papers in a particular issue the way I used to. And I’m less likely to find new journal titles. I also have to work harder to find an excuse to stretch my legs. But I’m not one to wallow in nostalgia: at my age, I’m happy enough to get my information at my desk and my exercise at the gym.

Photo: The sculpture at the entrance of the Kresge Engineering Library, in UC Berkeley’s Bechtel Building.

Originally posted on Sunny Bains unedited.