Life Before Wikipedia

Last week, I told my class about doing research for my college honors thesis on Northern Ireland.

I explained to them that to find old articles in the New York Times, I had to go to the library and find the big, white indices. Then I had to page through the books to find the key terms and write down the dates of the articles. Then I had to go to a file cabinet and pull out the rolls of film. Then I had to thread the film into big machines and fast forward to the correct date. The fast forward always made a very loud, satisfying sound. When you got to the correct date, then you inserted a dime, pressed a button and a dark copy of the page would pop out. Finding one article could take 20 minutes. 

To get copies of newspapers from Northern Ireland, I had to take a bus into the city and go to a particular news stand.

To get info on the local politicians, I went to the Irish consulate. I also wrote directly to key people, pretended to be a doctoral student, and asked several questions. Many actually wrote back to me. I think I have a letter from Ian Paisley somewhere in the attic.

The students were horrified.


26 thoughts on “Life Before Wikipedia

  1. “Finding one article could take 20 minutes.”
    I am incredibly pleased at the internet provides me with so much information. The other day, my daughter said, as she was doing a book report, “I’m so glad that I live in a time of the internet.”
    She also sits at the computer, looking for biographies of famous people, and says, “Oh, a wikipedia entry, find me one of those.” Wikipedia seems to be passing her 2nd grade litmus test for information.

  2. My honors thesis involved looking at Congressional votes from 1977 through 85. Fortunately, they had bound copies of CQ Weekly Report so I didn’t have to use microfilm.

  3. Oh, I kind of miss going through actual abstracts and journals and microfiche. I don’t miss it enough to give up the internet, but I kind of liked actually going to the library and thumbing through things and looking at articles and seeing what was out there.

  4. i think we wrote the same honors thesis. probably around the same time. boy, do i remember the new york times microfilm reels. but i don’t have an ian paisley letter!

  5. My students whine when I send them to some of our microform resources — they suffer so.
    Tomorrow, I give a workshop on doing biographical research on a scholar in our field. These fortunate students have access to the Gale database of Contemporary Authors! I only wish we’d had tools such as that when I was an undergraduate.
    The sad thing is, though, that many of my students will still start and end their biographical research at Wikipedia.

  6. In response to Janice’s post, yes, some of your students with start and end at Wikipedia.
    Why not teach them how to use it? How to verify that any assertion is backed up by sources, and that they have verified the source matches the Wikipedia article. Some of that will lead them back to the Gale database.
    This article from Wikinews might be worth a look as a way to turn the situation on its head and make students research places other than Wikipedia.,000th_featured_Wikipedia_article

  7. Hey, I have an RA doing research like that right now. Say you want news coverage of a murder trial in El Paso Texas in 1984. This is the way. So I hope you are also dispelling the false notion that many current students have that EVERYTHING is on the internet. Lots of historical research, including everything that I do with state court trial transcripts, involves legwork, photocopy machines, and often unreliable “archives.” I sometimes call it Extreme Research. But when you succeed, you’ve certainly done something orginal!

  8. Horrible, yes. But at least we know what is behind all the bibliographic data bases and other data bases like Lexis-Nexis. Without that background it’s hard to either appreciate or understand what these search engines are doing. I must say that I shudder to think about how I would live without Endnote and Web of Science.

  9. “at least we know what is behind all the bibliographic data bases”
    I beg to differ. I think most people do NOT know what is behind such databases. My students assume that everything is there, and it’s not.
    I challenge anyone to say what is behind Google Scholar.
    Hint: Google doesn’t even tell you! They don’t want to be pinned down. So they leave the illusion of comprehensive coverage, without providing the vital information as to what isn’t covered.

  10. I also loved that whirring sound with the fast forward. The sound of it zoning in as you printed was cool too.
    Along the same lines, one of my students was looking at the electric typewriter in our office with a sort of “what’s that crazy machine” attitude. I felt so old saying that I had learned to type on such a typewriter, back in the day when there were no computer labs. (Or at least my high school computer lab was so small and techie oriented that the regular student never even went in there, and certainly didn’t use it for word processing.)

  11. We do know what is in Pubmed. But, we have noticed a tendency for work that is not accessible electronically (lots of journals now have their backlists available on line, but certainly not anywhere near all) to disappear (*poof*). It can now actually be rediscovered as something new, if it happened long enough ago, and the authors are no longer working (dead, retired, or out of the business).

  12. I never did serious research that required “microfiche”, but the few times when I had to use it little projects, it gave me a headache, literally. I’m so glad that I didn’t have to use it much, and that it is now disappearing.

  13. I’ve banned Wikipedia sources from the papers my students turn in. I encourage them to use it, like other tools, as a way to become familiar with a subject, but they must not cite it in their notes. I also require them to have a certain percentage of their citations refer to actual printed books or articles they have hard copies of.

  14. My surefire way of getting students to stop citing Wikipedia in their papers:
    “I know sometimes your professors tell you that you can’t cite Wikipedia in a paper. That’s not true. You can cite Wikipedia. But you don’t want to. Why? Because it will make you look like a high school student.”
    Works every time.

  15. RCinProv I agree with you about Google scholar and I hate it, too. Indeed, my background with the cumbersome stuff Laura described allows me to be certain that googly searches sort of suck.
    As a tool for searching, compiling and ranking info, it’s frustrating because its methods are proprietary. Ridiculous. Also, one can’t tap into everything because of copyright issues. Google Scholar probably won’t ever progress as a free service because of Journal publisher’s strong territoriality. (Also, look at the settlement currently underway for Google books.)
    The “real” bibliographic databases such as Dissertation Abstracts or Medline/PubMed (or Lexis or whatever) existed *before* they were computerized. They were, and still are, compiled using explicit criteria, including info about what they do and do not cover.
    Using them in a computer aided manner gives you at-your-fingertips and lightening-fast availability, yes. Equally important is the option of properly querying with ‘library science’ strategies …. Boolean logic (AND, OR, NOT), setting limits (years, languages), key words, words that have been sanctioned into subject headings, etc.
    BTW, querying in Google that way turns up much more useful info.
    (All I can say is that good librarians are more important than ever!! I am reminded that I should bring that up when I attend my next doom-and-gloom budget meeting. Let’s be sure not to lay off librarians!)

  16. Since switching to medical research, I’ve seen ‘literature reviews’ that basically require a specialist librarian. Or, at least, that would have been a huge pain in the ass for me without one.

  17. “Since switching to medical research, I’ve seen ‘literature reviews’ that basically require a specialist librarian. Or, at least, that would have been a huge pain in the ass for me without one.”
    why? Is it substantive, as in one doesn’t know the right keywords to use, or something about the organization/availability of the information?

  18. I disagree that using print sources of information should be a requirement, arbitrarily (can’t speak, of course, for the specific field that Russell is talking about). I am convinced that scientific journals are going to stop print publications in, possibly even just 10 years. We may still keep the biggies, but many others no longer issue print, and it’s going to continue to snowball.
    I think a lot of other information is going to be available digitally, and though on be might be able to get the information in print form, requiring it is comparable to requiring us to write with quills.
    I don’t know what I feel about wikipedia citations. I think some of the articles are very good, and I think that others are not. I think I can tell the difference, too. I have looked up field-related issues in wikipedia, but can usually cite to the cited source when wikipedia has a good article.
    (I think it’s OK for my 2nd grader to cite to Wikipedia, but fear that she has not yet been taught all the details of citation & plagiarism).

  19. Learner,
    I agree entirely about the increasing importance of librarians. (Then again, I’m married to one!)
    But man, they need to be qualified and up-to-date. They have added a Google Schoalr link to our library’s electronic resources, and a student recently reported to me that a Social Science librarian actually told him that “everything is on Google Scholar.”
    Librarian malpractice!

  20. BJ,
    As for the medical librarians, the problem isn’t substantive. It’s the number of different electronic resources that have to be searched for some projects and the differences in how you have to format the search in all of those resources. Anybody with sufficient research experience could do it if given enough time, but it would not be efficient. Here I’m talking about searches that are required to be comprehensive and are pulling hundreds of citations.

  21. ” It’s the number of different electronic resources that have to be searched for some projects and the differences in how you have to format the search in all of those resources. ”
    Hmh, so it is about organization of information. Seems like something that should be fixed.

  22. Not just medievalists. Lots of my research sources from the 1980s in the United States are only on microfiche!

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