So, I’m doing some research into a seventeenth-eighteenth century alchemist named Johann Konrad Dippel. He lived in what would become Germany, and had a bit of a reputation. The first stop for information these days is Wikipedia. Now, as any academic knows, you can’t rely on what you find on the site. I use Wikipedia to help start my bibliography. The references here are rather slim. I see there’s an Encyclopedia Britannica article (1911 edition) available for free. I check their references. They wouldn’t have passed my 100-level courses. They contain the initials of the authors, no titles for their books, years and cities of publication but not the publishers. Okay, so I’ll google/ecosia the authors with just their initials. And the years. And the cities. Nothing comes up.
The next step is WorldCat. It’s never let me down before. Indeed, my first search brings up the bibliographic information on one of the mysterious, initialed authors. (The WorldCat entry doesn’t even have a last name.) The book is in German and the nearest copy is at Yale. Looks like I’d better keep looking. The next book doesn’t show up on WorldCat at all. No combination of author (with only initials and surname), place, and date appears. What was Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 thinking? It’s at times like this that I miss paper research. Although the privilege is no longer mine, roaming an academic library stack to stack, checking the card catalogue, breathing in the perfume of old books, acquiring new knowledge, these come back to me with the force of meeting an old friend after many years’ separation.
Less about the subject and more about the journey, seeking knowledge used to be an embodied thing. I suspect somewhere in a bio-mechanical future with the internet coursing through our veins, it will seem quaint to think of oldsters like me tapping away at a keyboard and peering at a screen to find information about a nearly forgotten dead white man. But even with all the knowledge of the web in intravenous electronic supply, will our future selves be able to put it all together? Will they solve the problems of sexism, racism, capitalism, and dare we go any further than that? Of will they elect leaders who care only for themselves and call on Christians to join them in deep corruption and fraud? Or will, after some collapse, future Leibowitz stumble across a mysterious piece of melted plastic and wonder if there really was anything here before?