Everyone who uses the Internet knows that research is a cinch. No matter what the obscure topic, you can find info on it within, say, a half hour. The Internet is the collective knowledge of entire cultures.
Back in the day, you might have actually broken a sweat while doing research.Those encyclopedias were heavy.
Wikipedia’s Weighty Ancestors
Just a few decades ago, every responsible parent seriously considered purchasing a set of encyclopedias at about the time their little scholars hit the later years of elementary school. It was a heavy investment. My 14.99 annual subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica’s app is cheap by comparison.
The reason for this investment was because the encyclopedia was where all research started. And that was all they were intended to be. Most topics only had a paragraph or two. Some had a page, maybe two or three. A few were as thick as a chapter in a book.
My own Dad purchased his encyclopedia set while he was in graduate school. It was somewhat dated by the time we were researching science projects. The moon landings were still speculative, and the Gemini missions were still in flight. I recall that its depiction of the neanderthal was based on the now-discredited Piltdown Man. They were still quite useful. I loved to browse through them, and I used it to learn basic sign language. I taught it to a friend, which we used as a secret language until it got us into trouble with our fifth grade teacher.
Dad subscribed to the annual yearbooks through the early 70s. Each yearbook consisted of another thick tome to add to the end of the set, with the year printed on the spine in large gold letters. They made for fascinating reading about what happened that year, similar to Wikipedia’s entries on individual years. (If you didn’t know about that, here’s 1922.)
The card catalog–depending on the size of the library–was also a vast index to a large number of obscure topics. Learning how to use them was required by the 4th grade or so, and by the 7th grade, you generally knew the Dewey Decimal System well enough to navigate the stacks with some degree of competence. You’d find your topic in the catalog, write down the location numbers, and locate your books on the shelf–clustered together by topic. Then you’d lug the books to a table and got to work.
At the end of each book, you’d find a bibliography which would lead you, like hyperlinks, to the author’s own sources. Following these retro hyperlinks meant tracking down libraries with the book you needed, driving there, and checking them out. You could also use the inter-library loan system, wherein a library van would circulate among area libraries, delivering books that had been requested by patrons at each one. This method, however, involved patience.
Years ago, my pet historical topic was the first Crusade. I read every book on the subject that I could get my hands on, from both sides of the conflict. One source that was often referenced was The Alexiad by Anna Comnena. It was a rare that any of these sources were women. She was the daughter of the emperor of the Byzantine empire, and wrote about the crusaders when they passed through Constantinople. I tried to track down a translated copy without success for several years before I finally found it in my college library. It was a lot of work just to read a few chapters. Nowadays, you can Google “the alexiad” and have a copy on your hard drive in about 30 seconds.
For microfiche, I give you this video:
Microfiche also comes by the spool, and those are really fun. You can speed by images so fast that they almost blur together, and then stop when you see something interesting. It’s like driving through newspapers. Don’t race through the pages for a long time, however. The librarian is sure to come along–like a traffic cop–and ask you to slow down.
Advantages over Today’s Tech
I like to include this section because when you upgrade, there’s almost always a trade-off. Sometimes, it takes a while to find because for research, the Internet is hard to beat.
Card Catalogs pointed you to books that you would never otherwise know existed (as does Google books), and encyclopedias were great for browsing through at random (yes, I know, Wikipedia has a random page option). But most of all, microfiche viewers–the spool-fed ones–are hard to beat. Browsing through images on the Internet is laborious due to the very nature of the Internet. I bet libraries have better options, but it has been a while since I’ve had to research anything that I have not been able to find on the Internet.