Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Research Before the Age of the Internet

Research has really changed since I first learned research skills in middle school. I still remember being impressed at the systematic orderliness of the notecard technique. One color of cards was for our sources. They were each given a unique code. White cards were for taking notes on sources, and were cross-referenced to the relevant sources. Each card (or set of cards) was supposed to contain notes on only one topic from one source. You could then arrange the cards, grouping together those on a shared topic but from different sources. You would lay out your paper visually by arranging the note cards on your desk. Then you would write out your text by hand, integrating your research into a (hopefully) coherent narrative. In the end, you would type it all up on a manual typewriter. The end result was very satisfying.

The research phase itself involved finding sources, which meant going to the library, leafing through the card catalog (not always easy, especially when the cards were too tightly placed), and writing down call numbers on scraps of papers. You could look up sources by author, title, or subject. Subject-headings were pre-defined. There were huge volumes you could browse through that described the Library of Congress subject headings. Serious research required examining these to be sure you were not overlooking important possibilities in your research.

For journal articles, we would go to the bound periodical indexes. I remember marveling at the thought that somewhere there was a team of people reading through all periodicals and extracting information and putting it in alphabetical order and publishing these periodical indexes. They probably used notecards.

We'd go to the library shelves and pull the books or journals off the shelves to read them and take notes. Cutting-edge technology was "microfilm." But we quaked in dread when we saw that that was the only way to find a given source. While there were several machines for reading microfilm, it seemed that there was only ever one that actually worked. Yet its ways were mysterious. We always needed to ask for help to get it to work. The print was often hard to read, and the mechanics of reading and taking notes was often awkward -- the huge machines took up a lot of space, which left little room for easy note-taking.

Sometimes the library did not have a given source. But there was Interlibrary Loan. Using it involved going to the front desk to get complicated request forms that we had to fill out in detail by hand. Then we had to wait a long time for the source to arrive. And then we would only have it for a few days, unless it was a photocopied journal article. We would get to keep those, and that was nice, because the bound periodicals are bound so tightly that they are often hard to read. For that matter, the copies from Interlibrary Loan were often copied badly -- the middle section black because the tight binding of the journal made it too hard to flatten enough to photocopy clearly. Or a page would be missing. Or one inch of the text would be cut off.

And our teachers back then had no tolerance for delays, or for typographical errors, or bad grammar. Their response was always the same: "You should have given yourself more time, to ensure that you could take care of all of this by the deadline." And we knew they were right about this. It didn't occur to us to complain about how hard and complicated all of this was. That was simply a given. The task was to meet those challenges.

Now everything is different. (Stay tuned for the next installment: "Research In the Age of the Internet.")

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