Bing tracking

Throwback Thursday

A Periodic Tale of Departmental Lore (Part 10)

Written by David Lapakko 

When doing research was quite a search!

You could say that when it comes to doing research, today’s students are incredibly spoiled–and they probably don’t even realize it.  But leave it to us old geezers to explain why!


In the old days (read: anytime before 1995), there were three main places to find material for papers: the card catalog, the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, and the Social Science Index.  The card catalog was the size of a small room and had scores of drawers.  In these little drawers were thousands of 3 x 5 note cards–on each card, a different book was listed, with its call number.  To actually get the book, you’d need to trudge to the “stacks” where all the books were housed, find it on the shelf, and then check it out.  But the card catalog didn’t have a way to tell you if a book was already checked out, so you went to the stacks and crossed your fingers.


The Reader’s Guide was an index to a wide variety of popular magazines such as Time or Newsweek.  There was such an index for every year–each one was a hardbound book at least two inches thick.  If you wanted an article on, say, capital punishment, you could look in the 1990 index, and then the 1989 index, and then 1988, etc. and hope that you might a few articles listed that would be helpful.  Then you could go to the Social Science Index, which was an index to many academic journals, and do a similarly laborious search–again, year by year.  Then to find the actual magazine or journal, you’d once again trudge to the stacks, hunt for the bound volume of that publication, and hope that you had a way to photocopy it, since you didn’t just check out an entire year’s issues of bound volumes; they didn’t leave the building.


When all was said and done, if you found three or four relevant books and three or four useful articles through this laborious process, you thought you had quite a treasure trove of information!  Now, of course, all of this seems incredibly lame and antiquated.  The next time you Google a topic and wind up with 750,000 hits in 1.4 seconds, don’t take that sort of thing for granted.  The power that today’s students have to access the universe of information is nothing short of mind-boggling–at least if your reference point is thumbing through World Almanacs and encyclopedias to find something out that Siri can now tell you in five seconds!