Looking for Answers

How much would it cost today, in US dollars, to build the Lighthouse at Alexandria? What academic degrees do funeral directors earn? How do soap bubbles form? What were the exact words Neil Armstrong said when he set foot on the Moon? What’s the name of that figure of speech—like where you call the president “the White House”? It begins with a C. Or maybe a P.

Questions such as these come up every day in nonfiction editing. The funeral director question popped up during an edit of a graphic novel about a group of teens. The lighthouse question was part of a huge fact-checking job on a book crammed with historic facts and figures. But wherever and however they crop up, the questions themselves raise an interesting query: What did we do before the Internet?

Books are the preferred resource for editors, whether we’re doing a routine edit, fact-checking, doing updates, or even looking into the viability of a new series idea. Well-worn paths link the Lerner offices to the Minneapolis Public Library and the Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota. But some questions make us think, how would we even begin to look for this information in a book or periodical? That’s where the Internet has saved us.

The Internet often takes a bad rap for being a dicey source of information—an unregulated world of websites created by who knows who. And there are plenty of questionable sites. I discovered at least half of them doing research for Vampires. But the Internet is also home to many government, university, organizational, and even excellent personal and commercial websites. With the power of a good search engine, the sites provide quick and easy access to a wealth of information.

Last week, I used the street-level view in Google Maps while working on a book about the 1773 Boston Tea Party. I’m still in awe that I read a historic plaque on a Boston street while sitting at my desk in Minneapolis. In the past two days, I’ve used the Bureau of Labor Statistics, MeasuringWorth.com, and Project Gutenberg. Other sites I’ve come to know and love include the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the US National Park Service, the New York Times article archive, and the BBC’s website (especially the history section). Even sometimes silly websites prove their worth. Among the amateur music videos and stupid human tricks, YouTube has several recordings of Neil Armstrong’s famous message to NASA.

That figure of speech is metonymy, by the way. I would’ve never found it combing through the Cs or the Ps in the dictionary. But I found it in less than two minutes searching for “rhetorical schemes” on the ‘net.