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May 22, 2018







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Do we pay a price?


05/16/18



 Some years ago, I did research at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and at the end of the day, to reward myself, went across the street to the Lamb and Flag pub. What caught my attention on almost every visit was a recurrent scene that took place in a back corner of the pub. There, at a round table, sat a group of students and their professor. Behind them on both walls of the corner were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stocked with all of the OUP reference volumes: everything from the Oxford Book of 19th Century Poetry to the Oxford Book of Popes. As I watched, from time to time, presumably as the table conversation warranted it, someone would turn to the shelves, retrieve a book, and share its factoid or other information with the group.

Years later, when our family moved into a new house, we built bookshelves into the corner of the room in which our breakfast table was located. We ate most of our family meals there. On the shelves we put all of our reference books, everything from sources on composers and their music to a dictionary of ideas and a couple of works on grammar. Then, often to the consternation, frustration, or amusement of our son and daughter, when the conversation warranted it, my wife or I would say, “Let’s look it up,” and direct them to one of the reference books.  
True: those books not only answered questions trivial and substantive, they also taught — I still think — certain skills of knowing how to find information one needs.
I reflected on that recently while dining at a friend’s house. We wondered what were the times of the men’s and women’s winners in this year’s Boston Marathon. He turned and over his shoulder asked Alexa, who responded in an instant with the names of the winners, their finishing times and other details of their performance. The whole transaction took less time than it would have taken, assuming a reference book or press release were at hand, to “look it up.”
Both methods would have resulted in the same factual answer. But would anything have been lost by the digital method? Perhaps what would be missed, or at least underappreciated, was the effort involved in learning something. Scholarship requires curiosity, resourcefulness, discernment, energy and determination. We want to know what we want to know and to know it is the truth.
As my mentor used to say, “Truth lies buried in the dross of much information and is accessible only to those who use the pick axes of their minds to dig for it.”
We cannot take Alexa’s word for everything.
Stephen Reno is executive director of Leadership NH and former chancellor of the University System of NH. Email stepreno@gmail.com.





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