General Question

adreamofautumn's avatar

How did students write papers before major online journal databases existed?

Asked by adreamofautumn (3983points) April 26th, 2009

This is not a facetious “haha look at our technological generation”, it’s exactly what it says. Current students have access to Jstor, Academic OneFile, etc. meaning we can access thousands upon thousands of scholarly journals instantly. How did you write papers before that was possible. If your school didn’t have access to certain journals, books, etc did you just have to go on without them? (This doesn’t include Masters Thesis work in which generally you would travel to do your own research if it’s that important, but general papers).

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25 Answers

3or4monsters's avatar

Multiple libraries… and their microfilms of publications dated from a few months to decades before my research began. :)

Wow, it’s been so long.. I can’t even remember what the microfilm viewer thingy is called!

adreamofautumn's avatar

Were most scholarly journals on microfilm then? I was under the impression that it wasn’t that common for scholarly journals…more newspapers and whatnot. If it was than that makes a lot of sense. I still use microfilm when certain things I need (mainly newspapers) aren’t on databases, but it’s rare.

Facade's avatar

I think I used my school books and encyclopedias forgive my poor memory

Lightlyseared's avatar

Well I found the science citation index helpful. It was a book that listed all journal articles published and linked them by keywords. Exactly the same as an online database except it took up 100m of library shelf. Then you had to go and physically find the journals. What takes 10 minutes now used to take days and often you’d have to go to several different libraries.

adreamofautumn's avatar

@Lightlyseared that is kind of what I suspected. I guess I just wonder if you physically couldn’t access what you needed, say journals that were only available in another country, across your own country, etc. did you just have to go without?

BBSDTfamily's avatar

The same way people did everything at that time- with a little more hard work, less conveniences, and yet less complaints.

adreamofautumn's avatar

@BBSDTfamily I feel as though that is quite the generalization. I do lots of “hard work” on my papers. Even with the databases I still travel to other libraries to get books, research in the actual library stacks, etc. Just because we are benefiting from technology doesn’t mean we don’t know what “hard work” is.

BBSDTfamily's avatar

@adreamofautumn I think you took my answer in the wrong context. I’m not implying that today’s student doesn’t know what hard work is. I simply answered the question you asked, which was how students wrote papers and having to manually find and search through every necessary document is clearly more difficult than the luxuries we have available to us today. No harm intended.

Lightlyseared's avatar

Well you could ask the library to get it in for you. Fortuantely I studied in London and there are some pretty good libraries here both in universities and other places so if you tried hard enough you could get your hands on whatever you wanted. Having said that if you are doing a sytematic lit review it was (and still is particulalry at undergrad level) apropriate to exclude material you physically couldn’t access.

adreamofautumn's avatar

@BBSDTfamily fair enough. I jumped on the defensive because I feel like I put a lot of work into my schooling and everything else I do and I really hate when i’m told that it’s not really work because technology has spoiled us. It’s not our fault we were born in the technological generation! :). I agree, traveling around tracking down everything by hand would have been a lot of work. I think this as I write a major paper tonight, I don’t have a car and I have no idea how I would have gone about tracking down the information I currently have without a car/access to other libraries.

_bob's avatar

Word of mouth.

crisw's avatar


You could get journals that your library didn’t have though interlibrary loan.

Jeruba's avatar

We learned how to use the card catalogue (which I miss—electronic files are truly no substitute) and the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. In certain fields there were abstracts such as Psychological Abtracts that would point you to journal articles. Reference sections of libraries contained a lot of general and specialized resources such as encyclopedias of all kinds. Librarians helped.

Scholarly journals were printed on paper and subscribed to by libraries. A year’s worth (a volume) would be bound in a hard cover by the library staff and shelved as a book. I had a part-time job at a college library lettering the titles and volume numbers on bound volumes of journals.

We wrote notes on index cards and wrote drafts by hand on paper, and we typed—meaning “used a typewriter”—(on corrasable bond so we could fix our mistakes) only when we were down to the final draft.

Judi's avatar

Think about typing with a manual typewriter and then getting graded down for every typo! I dreamed of word processors before they were invented!

casheroo's avatar

I would spend hours at the library.

fireside's avatar

Major offline journal databases

cwilbur's avatar

I can offer you an example. The major database of abstracts in musicology is called RILM РR̩pertoire International de Litt̩rature Musicale. Nowadays, you get it on CD quarterly, and you do a keyword search.

Previously, though, RILM was distributed as two big quarto volumes. One of them was the keyword index—you look up the keyword, and get a list of six-digit abstract numbers. The other was the article abstracts—you look up the six-digit number, and get an abstract and a citation.

So doing research with these was tedious. You’d start with the most recent volumes that your library had, which was usually 3 or 4 years old. You’d look up your keywords, and look up abstracts, and hope you didn’t follow too many false leads. You’d be lucky if looking up a dozen abstracts for a keyword led to a single useful abstract. And then you’d repeat the whole thing for the prior year.

I tried doing this once when the computer system in my graduate school library was down. I finally concluded that even if it took two days for the computer to be back up, it would be a better use of my time to just wait.

Also, this is why graduate school programs put a lot of emphasis on being current with recent research—nowadays, when the CD database is updated quarterly, you can find some things almost immediately. Previously, when RILM (for instance) took three or four years to come out, the only way you’d know about more recent work was if you had read the journal and remembered seeing it.

SuperMouse's avatar

@Jeruba, ahhh, the good old Reader’s Guide to Periodical literature. I used that and those really, really, really long drawers full of file cards to research my very first term paper (entited How the Music of the 1960’s Reflected the Feeling of the Decade). Back then microfilm was high-tech and micro-fiche was full on cutting edge. I remember filling out requests for hard copies of the magazines that were not yet on fiche or film and waiting at the counter for a stack to drag to the copier and make copies. Wanna talk really old school? How about hard cover, bound encyclopedias? Remember how they took up shelves and shelves with all the volumes? Someone tell me there is still such a thing, please…. At least back then we didn’t have to worry about the credibility of the website where we pulled the stuff.

fireside's avatar

Do they even have card catalogs in libraries anymore?

SuperMouse's avatar

@fireside they don’t have any in the library where I work.

helloimcat's avatar

@fireside I saw the catalog cabinet in the library at my school; I got so excited to see it I opened up a bunch of the drawers. But alas, nothing.

janbb's avatar

Most library catalogs are online now but you can still search them by author, title, subject and now keyword. Yes, there are still multi-volume print encyclopedias and reference works. You can still get journal articles that aren’t available full-text online through interlibrary loan. And there are still reference librarians. But yes, most journal research is done in online databases and it is certainly easier to access and use. It is still as important as ever to have critical thinking and evaluative skills, or perhaps, as Supermouse says, even more important, because you have to recognize credible and non-credible sources.

Plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme choses.

bea2345's avatar

Before the computer, librarians created huge bibliographies on every conceivable subject. Every library had its special collections, and you had to know who to ask. For years the West Indian Library in the Central Library of Trinidad and Tobago maintained an index of book reviews (of West Indian material only). I did my share of bibliography making. As an undergraduate, however, I depended on encyclopedias, indexes such as The Readers’ Guide and hoped that the library actually kept up its subscriptions. Much of the time information not available in one source had to be taken from another, sometimes with consequences for the accuracy and reliability of the data. When doing librarianship in the UK, I learned about the efficiencies of developed country services: good communications, reliable infrastructure, etc. You could request a book from the British Library and it would be delivered in a few days.

But you know what? I enjoyed fossicking around in the stacks of the University Library; all kinds of interesting things were there. Browsing the card catalogue was an end in itself – it is amazing how many people are called Clarke or Williams.

janbb's avatar

@bea2345 Wish I could give you more than one GA! Fun reading the memories of a fellow librarian. (And extra lurve for “fossicking.”)

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