Something old and something new in a recent research project

Library patrons

Library patrons

I concede: Real research can be done using only web sources. Just not much. Since this month is Earth Month, I want to look back at the first Earth Day in 1970 for one of my other blogs.

Can I find enough information on the web to write something about it?


And I’d produce a post every bit as disappointing as an online article I wrote about last fall, which appears to have started out as an undergraduate honors paper.

So I had to use some very old research methods. Along the way, I found a new piece of technology.

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Something old: print sources


Bound periodicals

Bound periodicals

The World Wide Web didn’t exist in 1970. People learned news from print and/or broadcast media.

Therefore, there is only one way to learn about Earth Day 1970, what led up to it, what immediately resulted from it, and the varying opinions about it: read newspaper, magazine and journal articles that were published in 1970.

Well, actually, it might be possible to find an archive of TV and radio news. Special collections and archives might have important unpublished documents by some of the more prominent participants.

But the point is that in order to know what happened at any time in history, it is necessary to consult documents that were created at that time. They might not exist in any newer medium.

Libraries have any number of full-text databases. Of course, you either have to visit the library in person or have borrowing privileges in order to get access to the databases from home.

Every issue of the New York Times is available in one of those databases. Other databases rarely have full text of anything more than about 20 years old.

So I had to visit actually two different local libraries to find what I was looking for. I didn’t find everything, because neither of the libraries owned some things.

Important speeches were never published. If they still exist at all, the manuscript is in some archive. It will take considerable searching to identify just where.

So how did I know what I wanted to look for? Here’s another blast from the past.

The only way to identify and locate magazine articles for much of the 20th century is the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, which began publication in 1901. EBSCO Host, a leading supplier of databases, offers libraries online coverage. But it only goes back to 1983.

Frankly, it surprised me to learn that no one has digitized the entire run and made it searchable. The only way to use it is the old-fashioned way: apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

Fortunately I was looking only for what came out in a single year. Otherwise I would have had to comb through multiple volumes. I have plenty of experience with that. It can take hours, maybe days, to find all the relevant citations in a printed index like Readers’ Guide.

Some people think everything is online. Plenty of people thought that 30 years ago. ‘Tain’t so.

I recall a situation in the late 1980s where both the director of an academic library and the assistant director left the university. Some dean was appointed acting director during the search for a new one.

He immediately sent an order to cancel all print subscriptions, because, of course, everything was on line. The professional librarians eventually set him straight.

If any library has a collection of bound periodicals and some idiot threw out Readers’ Guide, he forever crippled patrons’ ability to find anything in all those back issues.

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Something new: the library’s new technological wonder


This scanner rotates pages all by itself!

So I looked at Readers’ Guide and collected the bound volumes I needed. Once upon a time, I would have had to stand at a copier and make paper copies of every single article.

You know that when you make copies from a bound item—a book or magazine—the odd numbered pages fit on the glass one way. The even numbered pages fit the other. So every other page is upside down. You have to rotate alternate pages in the stack before you can staple it together.

Fortunately, there are scanners. I knew I could scan the articles and make PDFs. I took along a thumb drive to store them.

Remember thumb drives? Not long after I first discovered them and started getting good use of them, they became obsolete.

One thing I dreaded, though: having to rotate alternate pages of the PDF on my screen in order to read it.

Joy of joys! One of the libraries had a new scanner. You still put the pages on the glass in the same alternation, but somehow the scanner can recognize when something is upside down on the glass and rotate it automatically.

It works better with text than illustrations, but if the scanner didn’t flip a page correctly, the touch screen had a button that let me do it manually.

I could have saved the articles to my thumb drive if I really wanted to, but the default on the scanner is to send them by email.

One of the other libraries also has a scanner that will email PDFs, but theirs will only scan a stack of paper. There’s no way to avoid making paper copies with that one.

I don’t know how long such fancy scanners have been around. I haven’t hunted for large numbers of printed magazine and journal articles for a while. But I know that the library where I used the fancier scanner didn’t have it three or four years ago.

Libraries are known for having books and other printed material.

But they are also early adopters of new technology. Every time a new audiovisual format comes out, libraries begin to add it to their collections, and of course must purchase the playback equipment. I recently wrote about how library used its new 3D printer to print an ancient fossil.

So if you ever hear about some new whiz-bang technology, you might not have to wait long for a nearby library to buy one for you to try out. It might even make really old technologies—like print—easier to use.

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Photo credits:
Library patrons. Some rights reserved by liz west.
Harper’s magazine, bound. Some rights reserved by Anita Hart.
Scanner. from my iPad

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