Writing a post the other day, I did a series of searches that netted me quotations that would have taken me hours to search for and find in the stacks of my University library a mere four or five years ago.
I wanted to find a series of half-remembered phrases from a relatively obscure critical theorist. I wasn’t even sure that he said all of the things I was half-sure he’d said something about. I typed in a series of queries by inserting an alphabet soup of the words that I could remember from the long quotes I was wanting to pull, with author’s name attached to the end of the query; I brought up several of the theorist's books and found all of the quotes that I was hoping to find. It turned out that they were spread out across his entire body of work.
The whole "research process"—finding the obscure quotes I wanted, citing them—took me about seven or eight minutes. As recently as three years ago it would have taken me hours, and it could only have been performed at a major university library. The great likelihood is that I would have given up before getting started.
I remember discovering Wikipedia when I was in college. I literally remember the night that I first discovered it. The online encyclopedia was fairly new at the time, but it already had an incredible wealth of information on the particular subject that I was researching on that occasion: German World War II uniforms. I stayed up until 6 am that morning pacing back and forth from entry to entry, clicking through, deeper and deeper into my subject matter, and by the time the sun rose, I’d started a novella about the Battle of Stalingrad which swelled to nearly a hundred pages in the next two weeks.
That would have been an absurdly—almost megalomaniacally—ambitious project for a 21-year-old undergrad ten years earlier. The research to do a half-decent evocation of even a single day in the three-month-long battle—one of the most complicated, and still the bloodiest, battle in the history of the world—might have taken months or even years of trekking through libraries, sifting through histories, making notes of little details, sampling the voices of real generals and soldiers quoted online in various places to make the characters and dialogue more realistic. With the help of Wikipedia and just a few source-books, I managed to throw something together in just a few weeks that I can still read today without feeling queasy about it either. The piece wasn’t exactly Life and Fate, but it wasn’t an embarrassingly bad freshman effort either.