Monday, September 20, 2010


by Libby Hellmann

This is a story with a happy ending. In fact, it’s one of those experiences that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy about technology, connections, and the internet.

A few months ago, I started researching a new novel. Some of it is set in the recent past, specifically the late ‘70s and ‘80s when Cuba sent forces to Angola to help that newly independent country defeat South African rebels and insurgents.

I knew absolutely nothing about that part of the world. Or what some called the Cuban “Vietnam.” So my first stop was Google for a basic understanding of the issues, timeline, and outcome. Within an hour, I knew enough to know what I didn’t know. I needed more.

On a whim, I decided to tweet that I was seeking more information. I used the Twitter hashtags #Cuba and #Angola, but I wasn’t really expecting any responses. Twenty minutes later, though, I was surprised when I got a reply. The tweet was from a Brit, Edward (Tedd) George, who said he’d written a book called Cuban Intervention in Angola.

I couldn’t quite believe it, so I went to Amazon. Sure enough, there was Tedd's book, which turned out to be an expansion of his doctoral thesis and was highly recommended. There was a problem, though. Since there was limited distribution, the book cost $140, too expensive for my meager research budget.

So I went to the WorldCat online catalog to look up the book. I discovered it was in 6 Chicago libraries, called my branch library to tell them which ones. Within three days I had the book.

Not bad, huh? Except that’s not the end of the story.

I read the book, took copious notes, but realized I still had questions. By now, Tedd and I were emailing, so I wondered if he’d be willing to talk to me. I was surprised when he asked if I had Skype – I probably shouldn’t have been -- and I replied I did. He did too, so we set up a time to talk. His only criteria was that we talk after the World Soccer cup match of that day.

At the appointed time, I skyped him, and we talked for 45 minutes. I came away with some excellent ideas for my novel, and I think Tedd enjoyed the brainstorming, too.

So, in a period of a week, I accomplished what probably would have taken months. None of it would have been possible without Google, Twitter, Skype, Amazon, Worldcat, and the internet. And it was all free!

I love technology when it works like this… don’t you? What are some of your good technology stories?


James L. Thane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James L. Thane said...

Isn't that the truth? I did an awful lot of research in the pre-Internet years,, and looking back on it, I don't know how I ever accomplished anything. Even the simplest search could take hours or weeks. For all the problems I sometimes have with technology--computers occasionally freezing up, the Internet crawling at a snail's pace, etc.--I can't imagine how I'd ever live without it now.

John said...

See, Libby, the comments are piling up :-)

For me, being a reader not a writer, the current web technology has allowed me to turn on fountains of writers and books and topics which would have otherwise remained untapped by me, and I am the richer for it. My trouble is that once the tap was opened, Katie bar the door! Yikes!

BTW, it was awesome to finally meet you at The Book Stall this evening; thanks for being so gracious!


Bryan Gruley said...

A good technology story for me is: I turned on my iPod, and it let me play the songs I wanted to play.

But this is a very interesting post about the possibilities of technology helping you find the people who can help you find what you're looking for. What I worry about as a journalist and boss of several young reporters is that youngsters especially will rely too much on the technology itself (i.e. Wikipedia) and not enough on reaching out to actual human beings, where the real stuff frequently resides.

Nice post, Libby!

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks, John and Bryan.

John, anytime you want to comment, feel free. Great to meet you too!

Bryan, I've always wondered about Wikipedia. How do we know what's there is accurate... who's got an agenda... etc. I REALLY hope your proteges are NOT using it for much.