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Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: Research Before The Internet

October 10, 2016
(image via wikimedia)

(image via wikimedia)

When my daughter announced that she had a research paper for school, I was expecting an ordeal.  I braced myself for hours of whining and complaining and procrastinating.  Instead, my daughter pulled out her phone, looked up a bunch of stuff, and was done in 15 minutes.

15 minutes?  When I was a student, I was lucky if the trip to the library to get started on my research paper was only 15 minutes.

I’ll give my daughter’s school district credit.  They have an online database with a bunch of approved sites, so kids aren’t supposed to just go to Google or Bing and hope for the best.  I usually don’t have a problem with Google or Bing (though I know manipulation of key words can be an issue), but I’m an adult and know how to use these tools.  I’m glad the school teaches our kids to use other resources.

Still, my daughter doesn’t have have to do any real work for research except read.  She doesn’t have to drive 30 miles to a decent library.  She doesn’t have to figure out the Dewey Decimal System.  She doesn’t have to wait in a line for a librarian to find an old magazine.  Even worse, my daughter has never had to deal with microfiche.

Parents are supposed to be happy when their children’s lives are easier than their own, but my daughters should appreciate how stressful research used to be.  It was work.

Back when I was a kid (decades ago), we had Encyclopedia Britannicas, but teachers told us not to use them because it was too easy and the information was too vague.  Using the local library was okay for basic research like biographies, history, or outdated science stuff, but anything current was nearly impossible to look up.

The library had newspapers, but you had to ask the front desk for the older issues and then wait while they went to the back.  The recent periodicals/magazine in the stacks were disorganized and dog-eared with pages torn out.  All the good information had already been borrowed/stolen.  If you needed specific information that was more than a few years old, you had to use microfiche.

“Microfiche” was a word that was rarely spoken by itself.  There was usually a colorful adjective spoken before “microfiche.”  It might have been “f*cking microfiche” or “g*dd*mn microfiche” or “piece of sh*t motherf*cking microfiche,” but it was never just “microfiche.”

If you don’t know what microfiche are/is, this might help explain it .

Anyway, something always went wrong with microfiche.  The microfiche boxes were more disorganized than the periodicals.  The articles in the microfiche wouldn’t have the information that the summaries promised.  The microfiche was unreadable.  I’m sure there were other problems, but I’ve blocked them out.  The experience was borderline traumatic.

People who never have had to research using microfiche don’t understand the frustration.  If you told the teacher that you tried to research the topic but the microfiche didn’t help, the teacher always acted skeptical.  Looking back, I’m guessing that the teachers enjoyed putting us through the experiences because they’d had to go through it too.  Either that, or they had never used microfiche and couldn’t comprehend the pitfalls.

I’m convinced there was a hidden camera in the library watching students meltdown at the microfiche machine.  There had to be.  If I had been working at the library, it’s what I would have done.  The footage from that hidden camera probably made being a librarian worth it.

The citations at the end of the essays weren’t the worst part of writing research papers, but they were inconvenient.  Titles, authors, dates of publication, all went in different orders depending on whether the source was a book, a newspaper, a magazine article, a speech, or an interview. It was a pain keeping up with all the guidelines, especially since you did the citations last when you were already exhausted from all the research and writing.  The citations had to be precise because even if the teachers didn’t read the essays closely, they’d check the citations.  Nowadays, the citations are done online.

That’s right.  Citations are done online.  Almost all information is online.  There’s no need for microfiche.  I swear, kids today don’t understand how easy they have it.


When the first Star Wars movie came out in the 1970s, a friend of mine thought R2D2 and C3PO were real robots.  I told him they weren’t, and we argued back-and-forth for about six weeks.  Back then, there was no way to just look it up, so we kept arguing.  At some point, we even made a $20 bet (and back then $20 was worth a fortune to a ten-year-old).  Finally, some sci-fi magazine came out that interviewed the actors who played R2D2 and C3PO.  My friend might argue with me, but he couldn’t argue with a sci-fi magazine.

Before technology made instant research possible, people used to have stupid arguments about simple facts.  With technology and instant research, people argue about opinions instead.  That should mean we are evolving, but I’m not sure about that.  Most opinion arguments now are pretty stupid too.


For more about old things that are tough to explain, read Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: The Ugly 1970s.

From → Pop culture

  1. heideekae permalink

    Reblogged this on Elizabeth Kaye Daugherty – Writer.

  2. This article had me in stitches. I too used to spend hours at a library researching for a paper (still do at times). But the internet generation face another dilemma: whether the information they garner off the web is from a credible source, and can they repeat getting the same information from an additional source? We may have shifted the dynamics of how we research, but it comes with a new set problems. Today we need to research like journalists online… it’s all about verifying your sources and facts… and once you open that can of worms, it may actually be quicker and easier to go to a library and pull up a text that has already been vetted. (Yay oldschool!)

    When I was teaching, I had papers handed in all the time which were hilarious because the students had compiled their report straight from the net. Incorrect, out of context and littered with memes and gifs…

    We still need to maintain the integrity of the facts to build integrity of our words…

    That being said, we can find a lot of fun out there and create more dynamic reports, but I still think that proper research will never die. It’s just a matter of wading through the inconsequential to find something of substance.

    Or you could just watch cat videos 🙂

  3. Ah! This is just wonderful. The memories just came flooding back. I’ve still got an Encyclopedia set at home – it is tucked away in a box and hopelessly outdated but I just can’t get rid of it. There’s a sense of nostalgia to it. My childhood.

  4. Arguments about opinions are all over social media and I don’t see it as people evolving. Just the opposite. I enjoyed your writing 😊

  5. Whenever my students complain that research is too hard, I show them my binders for my senior thesis, written when things were just beginning to appear online. They stop complaining.

  6. I think the teachers were skeptical about your problems with microfiche (and yes, I remember it, too), because in their opinion microfiche and Dewey decimal system had been cool new inventions making their student’s research much easier, compared to the teachers’ own research which back in the day involved completely disorganized and partially unreadable handwritten scrolls.

  7. I remember the trips to the library fondly. Question is whether the kids learn anything just cutting and pasting. I hope they learn more than I did! Then again I did have some good times traveling to the libraries.

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