Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Cognitive Dissonance: Research Style

It might be a question of age. It might be a question of training. It might be the little kid inside who is still amazed by electronic gadgets. What ever it is, whenever I work at home I have an intense sense of the disparities that surround me, and the changes that my work routine has undergone.

Writing and research used to absolutely require extensive hours in the library (which they still do, but on a more limited basis). Where else could you find the sources, periodicals and literature you needed to work? Especially tedious, but even more necessary, was the use of the stacks to check references for footnotes (for which I have a very intense affection). Library work also opens the possibility of meeting colleagues and exchanging ideas.

Today, much of that is passe. Sitting in my home in the middle of Gush Etzion, with goat herds blocking traffic and the rain pouring outside, I am picking away at my laptop and connected by a wireless router (ADSL-Line) to Bar Ilan's main computer. If I need to check a reference, there are databases and catalogues on line to do so. If I need an article, often as not, I can find it scanned on one of the databases to which the university consortium subscribes. Need a talmudic/rabbinic source? There's the Bar-Ilan Responsa Project CD. Need textual variants? A lot are on line. Need a book? Well, here's the rub. Thirty years of addition to seforim and book buying have built up a library all over the house. Need to ask a professional question? Well, just yesterday I had a problem with a text. I e-mailed a friend and colleague, who lives in similar circumstances, and received a great reply with references and his latest publication attached.
(My friend, who will be reading this, is a tzaddiq.)

Nevertheless, I'm going out to work later at one of the Jerusalem Libraries. How come? First, you can get cabin fever under these circumstances. Second, there is nothing like meeting and exchanging ideas with living people. Third, well the Manuscript Institute is still the hub of our scholarly universe.

And yet, there is something (bitter)sweet about the isolation/connection that the information age has brought to scholarship and learning. I think we're all recluses of some sort. Certainly, I was raised academically to revere the life of Harry A. Wolfson, who never left Widener 'K.' And Kant, who revolutionized the way the world sees itself, never left Königsberg.

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