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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Uphill Both Ways: On Research and the Middle-Schooler

Dear Children of the Information Age,
It has come to my attention that your experience of writing a middle-school research paper resembles your parents’ experience as much as a Bugatti Veyron resembles a Ford Model T. You may, at this very moment, be typing “Ford Model T” into your browser’s search window to find out what the heck I’m talking about.
And that’s exactly what I’m talking about.
When my son had to write a biographical sketch of Charles Pinckney, he voiced a question about the man’s political career. I said, “Google it.” He threw his head back, moaned like a wolf baying at the full moon, and whined, “Why does research have to be so hard?!?”
“‘Hard’? Is that really what you just said?” I asked him.
Let me tell you a little bit about “hard”.
Apple III with 5 MB
ProDrive Hard Drive;
circa 1980
Personal computers barely existed when I was your age. I remember the first person in my class who got one. It was the rich kid with the dad who worked at an electronics company, which at the time was like being an astronaut or David Copperfield. The computer looked a lot like a mini microwave oven, and performed fewer functions than the calculator you got for your seventh birthday, which is now lying under a pile of Legos and dirty socks in your bedroom.
For your predecessors, writing a research paper meant going to the library, an actual brick building which served as the central clearinghouse of all wisdom, knowledge, and information. The internet was called the ARPANET, and no one outside the military defense community had even heard of it. Google not only didn’t exist, its inventors were still in middle school, doing research at the library.
Three main bodies of information existed: books, magazines, and newspapers. We considered our teachers sadistic tyrants if they demanded at least one source from each category, because finding a book required a different procedure than locating a magazine article, which required a different procedure than retrieving a newspaper column. We did not have search engines; we had the card catalog, The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, and microfiche.
"The book you seek is over there."
Artwork by Basak Tinli
And we had the librarian, whose social status equaled that of Athena, the goddess of Wisdom and War, two activities which well-embodied the experience of utilizing a library.
To find a particular book shelved in a particular place in a particular section of the cavernous catacombs that made up the galactic expanse of a physical library required a working knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System. This method grouped books into genres and assigned each a number which allowed one to pinpoint it in a particular place on a particular shelf in a particular section of the library.
Reading this still counts
as reading.
For example, the Dewey Decimal number for The Encyclopedia of Immaturity (where one can learn things like how to fake the amputation of one’s own leg and how to make false teeth out of orange peels) is 790.1/922, which designates it Arts & Recreation, and specifically Sports, Games, & Entertainment, where it is shelved between books 790.1/921 and 790.1/923.
To find books, one made use of the card catalog. A series of monolithic cabinets contained myriad small drawers holding endless rows of little cards with location information for each book housed at the library. One could search by title, author, and/or Dewey Decimal number. Proficiency in calculus, orienteering, and subterranean cave diving helped when attempting to locate and retrieve your book from its hiding place in the labyrinth that is the public library.
Magazine articles were recorded and cross-referenced in a series of handbooks called The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Updated yearly, these books were similar to the index in the back of a textbook, except they contained information on every article ever published in any magazine for that year. If, for example, one wanted to obtain information on hurling pumpkins, one might find an entry that looks like this:
Building the Perfect Trebuchet. P. Chunker. World Vegetable Almanac Monthly. v27 p95 Ja85.
Then one went to the room in the library which housed the magazine archives, found the World Vegetable Almanac Monthly, volume 27 for January 1985, page 95, and read P. Chunker’s article titled “Building the Perfect Trebuchet”. That, combined with a couple of trips to the hardware store and the farmer’s market, and neighbors coming home from work might have to swerve their vehicles hither and yon to avoid launched, exploding gourds. (Because that's the kind of thing we did to entertain ourselves back then, lacking as we were XBoxes and 3DS's and such.)
Microfiche Reader.
The reason so many of
your parents wear
reading glasses now.
But everybody’s favorite was the microfiche. These small sheets of plastic film contained nearly microscopic photocopies of entire newspapers, one page butted up against the next, to fill up the entire slide-like film. The library catalog listed which issues of which newspapers could be found on which microfiche, then the microfiche was viewed using a special machine. The Microfiche Reader resembled the cross-breeding of a microscope and a View-Master, and was operated with the simplicity and inelegance of an Etch-a-Sketch. Finding the article you wanted required patience, tenacity, and the keen eye of a starving eagle on the wing in a snowstorm hunting a baby mouse scurrying about the forest floor six hundred and fifty feet below.
At the risk of sounding like my own grandfather—“When I was your age I had to walk fifty-two miles to and from school, barefoot, going uphill both ways!”—I would like to conclude by saying that today’s youth have no idea what “hard” is when it comes to research. You have been blessed by the abundant cornucopia of knowledge, freely and generously bestowed upon you by the information gods—the likes of Vint Serf and Bob KahnLarry Page and Sergey Brin—and you are the equivalent of the floating-chair-bound fat people aboard the spaceship Axiom in the movie Wall-E.
I mean this not as an insult, but as an encouragement for you to appreciate the luxury and comfort of your circumstances. Others have done the data collection and collation for you, and you are reaping the benefits of their efforts. Research that formerly required footwork and page-turning and actual physical exertion now comes to you with the ease of typing a question into your browser window. That’s awesome.
So enjoy it. Go further and faster and wider a-field in your studies than we ever could have, bogged down as we were with the weight of all those actual books and magazines and newspapers. Zoom down the information superhighway in your fine Bugatti Veyron.
Just quit complaining to us how “hard” it is. We’re really not buying it.
Your Parents

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