I've posted another video about the Babel's Dawn project. If you cannot click it and get it going you can find it here. For those of you who prefer reading, the transcrip is below:
I was raised loving libraries. I got my first library card when I was six years old. My eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Abrams, was a former librarian and she taught us all the secrets of using them. We learned the Dewey Decimal System and how to use card catalogs. In graduate school I was in the library more than I was out of it. Working on books I used the New York public library so much that my mother began sending them money, and she didn’t even live in New York. So I think I know just how radical a statement I’m making when I say I never could have written my book on speech origins, Babel’s Dawn, if I had depended on libraries alone. Or at least the kind of institution Mrs. Abrams would have recognized as a library. My book is about things that happened millions of years ago, but it could only have been written in the 21st century.
I began the first post of my blog with the sentence that I wanted my blog to become “the main source of news and information about the evolution of speech…” When I wrote that sentence I stopped in my tracks. Was I nuts? Was there such a thing as news about the evolution of speech? It turns out there was such a thing. I found a steady flow of journal articles and academic conferences on the title. In some ways I was doing something very old fashioned—covering a beat like any newspaper reporter. Of course, in the old days nobody ever covered the origins-of-speech beat, but in the 21st century bloggers can pick their own beat.
Anybody covering a beat has to have sources, and really reporters are never better than their sources. Heaven knows how long it would have taken me to cultivate sources if I had been confined to the ancient technology of, say, 1995. As it was, I had Google, which pays off handsomely if you work at it, devoting a couple of hours to following leads instead of a couple of seconds. And by now I have well automated systems. Both the National Academy of Sciences and Google Scholar regularly send me notices of articles they have cataloged that mention the evolution of language. This system has made the world my source. It turns out there is a busy group in Edinburgh studying language origins. A philosopher in Italy had something critical to say. One of my first regular commenters was a linguist in Australia and I learned much from him.
Another useful tool is e-mail, which did exist in 1995, but was universal and easy by 2006. I could write to people and ask them to send me a copy of their recent paper. They did! So I could discover an article in a distant journal, say in New Zealand, and write to the author who would send me an electronic copy, sometimes within minutes of my first writing. Research has become quicker and sources have become much wider.
Another rule of the old-time beat reporter that has been invaluable has been to keep my focus on my readers. If I’m covering Washington politics for a newspaper in Indiana, remember to keep my eye on what the news means to the people of Indiana. In my case, I was promising readers news of the evolution of language, so I had to keep my focus on that issue. What does this piece of news mean to the matter of speech origins? Thus, if I was talking about a theoretical paper on multi-level selection in evolution, I had to remember to say what that meant to my readers. I had to get down to brass tacks, even if my particular tacks were highly specialized.
By now I have published 15 or 16 books and have done research in all kinds of ways. For one book I travelled across Africa for months, taking notes every foot of the way. For another I interviewed people across the country about their experience with adoption. Several books have forced me to spend a year or two or three in the library. And now I’ve managed a research project by blogging and using the tools of the Internet.
I kind of regret that the 8th graders of the future will not have a Mrs. Abrams of their own to teach them the wonders of the Dewey Decimal System, but my own success at producing Babel’s Dawn: A Natural History of the Origins of Speech has proven to me that the Internet has made research stronger than ever, even better than ever when you keep the old virtues of learning a beat in mind. The world has become my library.