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4.5 The Research Essay -- Internet Resources

Okay, you've got your Internet access through your university or college or high school. Perhaps you've also got a dial up or broadband connection at home or at work. Heck, you're reading this document on the World Wide Web! Well, if you found this document, there must be others that will help you with your research essay on William Godwin. Somewhere there must be The William Godwin Home Page. Well, there isn't. Does this mean there is absolutely nothing regarding William Godwin on the Internet? No. Not necessarily, at least. What it does mean is that no one has bothered to set up a site devoted to William Godwin. But, if you run several searches across the Internet you will find that there are sites which contain digitized versions of some of his texts. (Interesting, they are in Japan!) You will find reviews of books about Godwin. You may even find a link back to the page you are reading right now. After all, Godwin's name appears here a number of times. Of course, you will also find links to "Donna Godwin's Recipe Mania" or "The Godwin High School Home Page," "Rick Godwin's Portland Real Estate Page" and so on. But no William Godwin Page.

What did you expect? Did you really expect to find dozens of resources about Godwin? Think about it. Godwin is a minor figure in the history of the western intellectual tradition. That's why I picked him as a thesis topic in the first place. But say you picked Karl Marx, or Rene Descartes or Plato or World War One or the Cold War or Bosnia or Iraq or Pizza Hut (!!!). Go ahead. Run a search on that stuff and you know what? There is a lot of information. That's because these topics are more "popular," for lack of a better word.

However, there is a caveat. Just because the Internet exists, does not necessarily mean you are going to find what you are looking for. This is true even if you use the best search engines in the most efficient manner. So go to the Rene Descartes page. Does it tell you anything you need to know for your research essay? At best, that page will end up pointing you to a number of other pages in which information is replicated. And what do you end up with? Sixty minutes online and no closer to completing your research essay. The Internet is at best, an adjunct to research. It is not the place to conduct all of your research. This is especially so in the Humanities. Sure, you may encounter some resources and if you're lucky, they might even be excellent resources. But, nothing can replace a trip to the library. (Give my regards to Cliff Stoll!)

Okay, so perhaps the World Wide Web doesn't have what you want. What else is there? Well, there are more than 20,000 USENET newsgroups out there and although you won't find one devoted to Godwin, you may find one in which the participants discuss anarchism. Maybe you could search their FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) archive and see if anything is there. Or you could post a query to the newsgroup bit.listserv.history, e.g. "I am writing a paper on William Godwin's philosophical anarchism. Can anyone offer any insights?" Or what about mailing lists? (There are at least one hundred listservs devoted to all facets of history, intellectual history included.) Sure, you could subscribe to one of these mailing lists and start discussing Godwin's theory of human perfectibility. But only if the moderator allows you to join the group.

Well, don't give up. At least not yet. You should know that by using TELNET, you can access the online database of almost any library in the country. This is good if you are trying to locate resources. Of course, this won't get you the resource but at least you'll be closer to knowing that the resource does indeed exist, or doesn't exist. And again, if you know the resource exists but your library doesn't have it in the stacks, don't despair. Walk right up to a librarian and ask about an Interlibrary Loan.

So what's my point? Is it that you ought to abandon the Internet as a viable research tool? No. I would never say that. What I would say is this: do not expect too much from the Internet. Be realistic in your approach to your research topic. And by "realistic," what I really mean is, GO TO THE LIBRARY, because that's where you are going to find what you are looking for without question. The Internet is not a waste of time, unless you waste your time on the Internet. Furthermore, the Internet is no replacement for library work. Make the effort worthwhile.

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