Wandering the web stacks to improve your information diet

by James Somers, October 31, 2009

Alarm bells should go off any time you open your web browser, poke around for a few minutes, and close it feeling roughly like you had turned on the television and found that “there’s nothing on.” Because if that happens, it means either that the Internet has somehow become less dynamic and informationally rich than is commonly thought or, more likely, that you’re now using it like the library patron who, having fallen in love with the periodicals section, has forgotten all about the books.

It’s surprisingly easy to let this happen. All you have to do is curate a collection of channels — blogs, magazines, newspapers, social news sites, twitter users, etc. — sufficiently abundant and interesting that you can afford to stop looking. At that point, information-satisfaction is merely a matter of consuming your feed. The wider web might as well not exist.

Think again of the library. Imagine if all you did there was peruse the latest editions of your favorite periodicals. Certainly you could keep yourself busy this way, but there would be times, no doubt, when there’s just nothing new. And if it doesn’t occur to you to wander the stacks, you’ll probably just leave.

So it goes with the web. Which leads us to the obvious question: what’s the Internet equivalent of a book?

If I had my way the answer might well be “books,” but until those become openly available we’ll have to settle for something else. Here are a few candidates:

  • Professors’ home pages. Find the X department at a good university, where X is some subject you’re interested in, and odds are there will be at least one professor there with a gigantic, ugly web page full of links to top-notch papers, blogs, essays, books, and other, even bigger pages of links. Examples: Cosma Shalizi, John Lawler, John Baez, Timothy Gowers, Tyler Cowen, etc.
  • Along the same lines, I have recently discovered that grad students at many universities, especially if they’re in small-ish departments, will collectively run a group blog. See for example Go Grue, run by philosophy grad students at the University of Michigan.
  • If you chase around the blogrolls of good blogs, you’ll not only get a feel for the online territory staked out by some discipline, but you’ll also start to notice that a few really strong blogs show up in nearly everyone’s list.
  • Surf Wikipedia, of course, but follow the footnotes. Most Wikipedia articles draw heavily on one or two much more comprehensive sources. For example, many philosophy articles either point to or are in some sense abridged versions of pages at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I’m not sure but I would imagine other fields would have a few of their own go-to resources.
  • Classic short fiction and nonfiction is very easy to find on the web. Google “[famous author name] essays” and you’ll likely find a page like this (for Montaigne) or this (for Orwell).
  • Pay attention to people who are themselves voracious readers, and ask them what they read.
  • Many law reviews post the full text of each issue online. See Harvard’s, for instance. The “articles” and “essays” are mostly by professors, but the “notes” are written by students and are generally more accessible.
  • Find “classic” academic papers, especially in fields with which you’re unfamiliar. Most classics are so called because they are especially readable, on top of being major contributions to the state of the art. One way to find them is through profs’ pages, as above, or by googling “classic papers in X“. In some fields, like cognitive science, people have made lists for just this purpose. Or you can look at the syllabi of introductory grad school courses, citation counts at Google Scholar, etc.

So if ever you catch yourself closing your browser after an unsatisfying short session — and you still have time to consume, rather than create — realize that you’re probably turning your back on the stacks. The wonderful, wanderable stacks.