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Indispensable Googability

PUBLISHED: January 19, 2010

I’m scheduled to give a short lecture to 150 people, so I spent a recent afternoon working on my slides. After the time I spent doing research, I’m left wondering how in the world people got information in the days before Google.

Here is some of the data I collected in about an hour:

  • US life expectancy in 1950 and 2009
  • schematic overview of the drug development process, with average length and cost of each step
  • the names of every single drug approved by the FDA (over 100 of them!) in January 2009
  • the names of every single drug approved by the FDA in 1950 (who knew 1950 was the year of percodan and penicillin?)
  • several highly entertaining political cartoons
  • quotes on drug discovery from FDA committee chairs, pharma reps, physicians, patients…everyone except the family dog
  • op-eds from the pharmacology and public policy literature debating drug prices and their implications for American health care
  • a 100-page document on pharmaceutical development from the Congressional Budget Office
  • the current weather in Chicago, including radar forecasts (too much heavy reading required a break)

I found more information than I can fit into a single presentation. In the absence of the internet and a search engine, how would one even go about investigating congressional publications or lists of approved FDA drugs? That information wouldn’t be in an encyclopedia, and from my vague memories of the library card catalog as a child, I don’t think there would be a search phrase there either. That information likely would not have been publicly accessible just a few years ago. Even if the data could be found in a specialized library somewhere, I would not have been looking it up from the comfort of my papasan chair. There is a vast amount of junk on the internet, but amid the celebrity tweeting and Facebook frenzy, there is information that has had a profound influence on what we read.

I shudder at the stories about the old days of Index Medicus from some of my science mentors. By the time I was done with my thesis, it had over 250 references, and I didn’t have to go to the library to photocopy a single journal article. Instead, with a few clicks of a mouse, I found each reference on the National Library of Medicine’s Pubmed database and then downloaded a copy to my Endnote library. This unfettered access to information has led to an explosion of research advances within the scientific arena and the translation of scientific and technological ideas to the public. The abundance of science and health blogs maintained by major media outlets testifies to public interest in these subjects and the accessibility of information that was once dominated by career academics. (Gina Kolata’s science column in the New York Times often makes their list of their ten most emailed articles.)

I can’t help but wonder how much the internet has expanded the scope of our literary horizons, even in the realm of fiction. The grand aphorism of the craft of writing is to write what you know; to what extent do the endless details available online supplement personal knowledge? Memories of a person, a place, a story will fade or change over time, and writing realistic fiction requires accurate details. Can research that would once have been done on location now find a virtual substitute, and, in the process, help aspiring novelists finish their work? And once a novel is published, does the thriving business of used books for sale online—think Amazon or—allow more people to add to their personal libraries in a way that would have been unthinkable at $29.95 new hardcover prices?

There is one significant downside to our information smorgasbord. The current publishing trend is towards fewer books being published each year. Library bookshelves no longer carry as many titles as they used to. Some of the most robust genres of the past—memoir, travel writing, literary biography—are no longer leading sales for publishers or book retailers. Competition from internet may well have something to do with this. In that sense, the internet is probably good and bad for the world of writers, readers, and those who like to do a bit of both. It gives all of us access to more knowledge than any generation which has come before and, for that, whatever its impact on publishing, I can only conclude that’s for the best.


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