White gloves and Web research

Pardon my nostalgic moment. I'm thinking back to the time I donned white gloves to thumb through a box of 19th-century letters kept in my college's archive. In that rarefied atmosphere you could see the dust in a beam of light, drifting down to the Oriental carpet. At times, the only sound was the soft scrawl of a pencil. Something about holding a piece of history made the task of analyzing it that much more enticing.

With the Internet constantly reaching its digital fingers into life as we once knew it, it's tempting to worry that hands-on research may itself become a part of history - history that future generations will study online, or in some newfangled form of virtual reality.

But if anything can get me past my nostalgia, it's news of the creative ways people use technology to give scholarship entirely new dimensions. Thanks to eBay, a popular online auction site, one woman's old postcard might just be the key to another woman's postdoc.

The use of a commercial website for scholarly pursuit, detailed in today's lead story, came as a surprise to me. I was glad to be reminded that what counts as worthy of academic study is ever changing - and it doesn't necessarily have to be housed in acid-free boxes and locked away in a library cage.

What's wonderful about making items accessible online is the way it sets learning free from geographical borders.

But that's not to say archives are going away anytime soon. No matter how many items are cataloged and displayed digitally, no doubt there will always be some scholars who want to preserve the material evidence, and others who are compelled to make the trip to see and handle these items with care.

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