Distraction in the Stacks

Return. Yes, I think I will.

Return. Yes, I think I will.

Another fun day at SGS.

I have a general goal to make it into the Seattle Genealogical Society’s library at least once a week for the next few months. The day and time are blocked out in my schedule, so now it’s up to me to make that time meaningful and productive. And how to do that?

Away from the library, I’m studying a book called How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It’s providing all kinds of valuable prompts for efficient skimming. And it certainly is a classic. As I read through the first four chapters I had mini flashbacks to reading comprehension classes from middle school.

1: State what kind of book it is. 2: Summarize the unity of the book in one sentence, or as short a paragraph as possible (check the introduction or publisher’s blurb for clues). 3: Skim the table of contents and take note of its structure and parts. 4: Read the first and last few pages. Okay, now you’re set to start exploring the index and are then welcome to dive in and skim-away.

For today’s visit, I had planned to follow these guidelines, but soon discovered that distractions abounded.

After browsing the shelves, I brought back three Maryland-centric titles to my reading area. I was looking for a few specific surnames for fresh leads on repositories to query or documents to seek online. I also had a general goal of familiarizing myself with the early families of certain counties — Anne Arundel and Baltimore.

That’s not what happened.

Instead, as I readied to practice the above guidelines, nagging thoughts interrupted. Were these books already online somewhere? Could I save some time by searching an online index of them?

Apparently, I have no self control. Laptop swung open, browser was pulled up, first book title was entered into the search field, and sure enough, at least the first book was available through Ancestry.

Well, if this one was there, were the others as well? Check. Yes. Check. Yes.

All three had been scanned, and digitally indexed (searchable). I had to wonder if it would be worth the effort to practice my pre-skimming skills with the physical titles in front of me, because I could easily accomplish that from home in my PJs.


I flipped through one of the books, I looked at the searchable book online. Back to the physical book, once again with the digital book.

The Ancestry reader seemed a bit cluttered, scanned pages were sometimes a little askew, I couldn’t get a full page up on my screen because the navigation bits seemed to get in the way. But then I switched to the search portal for the book, and I typed in my surname… and BAM! There were some names I recognized! And there was a small image and summary of what was being indexed — do I want to see tracts, tax records, or other? Choices!

Looking at the book, I flipped to the back of the index and slowly shifted through pages trying to find the “R”s. Once, I got there, it was just a name of course, and no context for what the page number was going to lead me to. The surprise had been spoiled by the searchable index, but I didn’t resent it. I sort of resented that I was being slowed down, and would possibly get distracted again on the way to finding my page.

Yet, the book seemed to be begging me to flip through the pages and read randomly as well, in a positive way. To get that “bigger picture” that my new guidelines for evaluating books required. I had been so distracted by the immediate gratification of the searchable index, that the foreword was overlooked, didn’t check table of contents, or read the first and last few pages. Did I really know overall what this book was about? Something was missing from the experience of understanding the author of this work too — why it was compiled, what goals it hoped to accomplish, and under what context it had been written. I didn’t know the structure, and I was missing aspects of how that could inform me about what records were available from the region in general. I understand that sometimes what’s NOT THERE is as telling as what is, particularly when thinking about geography, economy, and world events.

This divergence into distraction was actually teaching me an important lesson. I should have more respect for the searchable titles that online database providers serve. It wasn’t that the online version was inferior, it wasn’t. It was the EXACT same content. It reminded me of my struggle with candy binging vs choosing a good fruit. The fruit won, I haven’t touch processed sugars in a year. There’s good flavor in both, but the fruit sustains and nourishes. The candy, not so much.

I don’t want to be a grab and run kind of genealogist. I’m not a Navy Seal with a timed and critical mission, or a burglar in the night, taking what I want and then running off into the shadows. I care about this stuff, right? I feel nourished by it when it makes sense, when facts are in context, when understanding is achieved.

Conversely, I’m not a romantic about physical books either. I’m glad they’re out there, I know others really love them, but I can do better research and remember more, and be more accurate with my transcription with digital content. With my laptop, I can research at convenient times for me. After doing some metrics, I realized that I read more books and understand them better when I can control more about the environment in which I read. For example, I can’t take notes with pen and paper without aggravating RSI in my hands, holding a book is bad for my wrists, hunching over a table is bad for my back. It’s healthier for me to read and research on my laptop overall.

But I have become spoiled, and I realize now that zipping to my info using searchable indexing without first carefully reviewing the structure of the work, while saving time, is not enlightening. I’m getting facts and all that, but I didn’t really come to terms with the authored work, and there’s valuable things that I’ll completely miss because I wasn’t following good reading hygiene.

Time to clean up!

So, thank you physical books. Even though the exact information can be found elsewhere in a form that is healthier for me, you still had a great lesson to teach me. I’m glad that there’s a place that we can still go and be with physical records and objects.

I don’t think the world is ready to go completely digital nor think that it should, but it’s also important to understand that digital improves and increases accessibility – particularly for the disabled, and those with limited mobility, or means for travel, or who have limited time.

Digital collections are a good thing — a responsible, wise and noble thing — because they increases access to information.

Physical books are a just as good, but in a different way. They ask us to slow down — to savor, to appreciate, to look at the whole — and offer an opportunity to digest and ruminate precisely because we can’t circumvent working with their pages and linear first-nature.

I will have both, please! Not one or the other. They are complimentary.