Excursus: An anecdote about digital research gone weird 4

(This is outside of the three part series I’m writing, but I wanted to share a story)

This post started out as a comment on a recent ProfHacker post but it quickly became clear to me that it was its own little story. So I’ll go back and make a comment to link here, instead!

Last August, deep in the middle of dissertation revising, I took a writing retreat to Vermont. Unlike previous writing retreats taken in the Hudson Valley, NYS, this retreat at the house of a generous friend of a friend’s had internet access available. About as soon as I arrived, I realized I had forgotten a book I really really needed (Puerto Rico in the American Century by Ayala and Bernabé in case you’re curious and want an absolutely great history of +/- the last 100 years of Puerto Rico). I had internet, but no scholarly library nearby. So, I bought and downloaded the kindle edition of the book. I had never worked with a kindle edition before and I quickly discovered that while they are great for reading in a linear fashion, at least the iphone app has no search feature at all. Edited to add: Also, while the kindle book had the whole index included, the index refers to the page numbers in the book. And while the TOC is linked to jump to chapters, the index is not linked, so you have this whole tantalizing list of page numbers, and no way to find the pages.

So I brushed up my oral exam reading skills and skimmed. Skimmed as if my life depended on it (and frankly, I felt at the time that it did). And I found my salient quotations and parts I needed to summarize and cite. And then, another shock: kindle editions have no pagination. Or at least they have no reference to the original pagination of the book. I could potentially have cited the kindle edition and let the chips fall where they may, but I knew I already had quotations from this book, cited to the paper pagination in my dissertation.

Enter Google Books

Not all the quotations I needed from this book were in the google books preview. However, even words not included in the preview respond to the google books search… and give you the page number. So over and over during that hot week in August, I skimmed the kindle edition, found the bit I needed, searched google books for a unique string (or a string I dearly hoped was unique!) and cited. While this sounds time consuming, (and was!) I still believe it was less time consuming than having no citations at all, and since the google books turned out to be correct in each case, going back and checking my citations against the printed book actually went quite quickly.

This anecdote explains why I do not believe the Kindle (or its related apps) is ready yet to be a scholarly tool, although I actually really enjoy reading books on it. However, in conjunction with google books, it can save your scholarly life, way out there in the woods.