A week or two ago I wanted to track down a short story. I thought it was probably by a writer called Margaret Irwin. I remembered what it was about, but I wasn’t sure of the title. Quarter of an hour later I was reading it on my ebook reader. I’d found the writer on Wikipedia, identified the story and the collection it was in, and bought it.
My daughter’s generation take all this absolutely for granted, but to me it still seems little short of miraculous. I think back to the early 1980s when I was writing my Ph.d thesis on Arthurian legend in fine and applied art 1840-1920. I wrote to every museum and art gallery in the UK. Now I expect their collections are all on-line and I could have done all that research in a day or two. As for actually writing it, I had a Smith Corona electric typewriter – just like the one in the picture. It was absolutely state of the art and I cherished it. You didn’t have to mess about with Typex. You could put in a correction tape. Magic! I typed many drafts of my thesis on it. The final draft was typed by a professional typist. It was a year or two after that that I bought my first computer – an Amstrad.
To track down that Margaret Irwin short story, I would have had to leave the house and go to a library, and a large one at that, preferably a copyright library such as the British Library. To own a copy, I would probably have had to trawl the second-hand book shops (and would no doubt have found other books that I didn’t know I wanted until I saw them). Now nothing need go out of print any more and previously out-of-print books are having a new life as ebooks. But, still, I think I’ll always enjoy a rummage in a second-hand book shop.