Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: Research Before The Internet
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 Using the local library was okay for basic research like biographies, history, or outdated science stuff, but anything current was nearly impossible to look up.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.
If you like researching on your phone (or if you like reading anything on your phone), you’ll probably like reading my ebook.