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Information Resources Part I – Overall Media Types

This is an extended response to a question asked by Gary Mitchel on his Feed Forward blog: Where do you go for depth? I have so many thoughts on this subject, and the broader topic of good information sources, that it will take several posts.

First off, I am a book junkie. I might be in hibernation now (after marriage and children), but if I go to a book store, especially a used one, it’s very likely I’ll come out with 2-3 books. I don’t always read the books right away, but I always buy because I’m interested in what’s inside, not just the covers.

The best places to go for information depends on what you’re looking for. It’s different if you want to think about perennial human problems (philosophy, religion, political philosophy), current events (history, politics, social trends, etc), technology, or other areas that I won’t cover.

Each type of media has its own strengths and weaknesses. Since I’m not writing a book here, I’ll just give some opinions of mine.

Paper has the best readability – it’s so easily get comfortable with a book or magazine. And if you need to refer to multiple sources, it’s so easy to spread a whole bunch of paper, books, or magazines out – OTOH, most of us can’t afford the equivalent number of monitors! Reading a PDF file or HTML file on a monitor just isn’t the same.

When I was first programming, I did a lot of print outs. Now I hardly ever print anything out. Partly the programs are longer – long program listings aren’t so useful. Mainly I think it’s because modern development tools are so useful – like searching in all the files, showing the difference between two versions, going to function definitions with a click, etc. Larger monitors also help (if I were back on a 640×480 screen, I’d be printing code a lot more).

One problem with print is it quickly runs into space limitations. Complete documentation of any reasonably complex system (say the .NET framework) will take thousands of pages. Magazines have severe space limits. Space is much cheaper online, so it’s possible to have much more information on line.

But it’s harder to read long pieces on line. The blog format especially isn’t well suited to long pieces – they need to be broken up. For example, I’m breaking up this top into at least three posts, so that each post will be somewhat manageable in length. There is a plus in splitting posts up – it means I can write it a bit at a time, which is easier to do. This is a return to the earlier days of publishing, the time of Dickens, when novels were published serially (often as the author was still working at it!) – we’re also seeing this in computer books (e.g. Manning’s Early Access program).

Another online (and computer) advantage is search. It can be so much faster finding something online than using trying to sort through the indexes of a bunch of books – and you still might not find it. Of course, now some sites let you search books online (Amazon, O’Reilly’s Safari, etc) so this can be the best of both worlds – use search to finds the books, then read them in paper form.

A web disadvantage is lack of permanence – links grow old, web sites disappear, and not everything is cached. Paper is still readable hundreds of years later (well, if it’s quality acid-free, not pulp).

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a book person. I don’t care much for audio (except for music) or video (OK, I do love Looney Tunes), especially for technical topics. Print material lets me go at my own speed, skip the stuff I know, and concentrate on what is most important. I’m sure audio (including podcasts) and video have their uses.

My recommended reading for this post is Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and Dorothy Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise. Scoop is totally hilarious and still relevant to today’s journalism (especially considering the number of journalists who have been caught making up stories). Murder Must Advertise is also an enjoyable read, especially the parts about the advertising agency (the copywriters don’t like the art people – kind of like Gary Mitchell and his art director – but they all hate the customer).

Comments 4/19/2011: I haven’t finished this series yet.  I still hope to, once I complete about 100 other tasks first.  I still don’t have an eBook reader or tablet; I’m likely to go for PDF or print for technical books, and stay with print for non-technical.  You loose a lot of rights (such as re-sale and easy lending) when you start using Kindle, Apple ebooks, etc.



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