Uphill both ways in the snow

7 June, 2010

Trinity Library go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that nobody gets to see any of their material. It took three visits, four queues, one magic card, one form, one phonecall, one number I didn’t have from an email they couldn’t possibly have sent me, two photocopy card machines, two photocopiers and one French student, but I finally have the article I wanted.

Grumble grumble Brooks, you had better have had something good to say back in 1983…

This performance got me thinking, though. Before the Internet, how did any research get done? Universities run on email. Conference notices go out by mailing list. Submissions are all online. Papers have full details and abstracts on websites, and there is a great wailing and a gnashing of teeth (at least on my part) when the PDF is not available to download.

I can think of ways to do most things offline (though now I think about it, how do I find out where to order a phone book?) but this one has me quite horrified. Jim had a good point: suppose I’d learned about this seminal article from 1983, and even managed to find it; how would I then find any of the 500+ papers that reference it?

Did you just have to read everything? By post?? How did anything get done?

Then again, perhaps the days Before Internet also had their advantages.



  1. According to a noted authority (i.e. my mum), you would first ask your supervisor which journals were the most important. Then you’d visit your nearest print copies in turn, spending entire days sitting on carpet-tiled floors, flicking through thousands of dusty pages and making notes. The process was systematic (bounded by specific publications and dates), iterative (the more you read, the more journals you discovered), difficult (accidentally ignoring a relevant paper was an expensive mistake), and interesting.

    I would rant about how the Internet tends to divide, specialise, and trivialise, but my irony recursion detector stopped me just in time 😛

    • Possibly the ‘thwack’ of a completely-processed journal volume would be more satisfying than this endless network of links. Maybe I should go to the library more…

      … on the other hand, a library can also be thought of as an entire building full of carefully-categorised tangents 😦 I tend to end up sitting on carpet-tiled floors, flicking through dusty pages that are nothing to do with whatever it was that I went in for.

  2. […] sequel is called “Photocopy Something in TCD Library”, but by this point you’ve probably lost the will to live, let alone […]

  3. […] Magnets? Neat and effective, but also liable to erase all my photocopying credit. […]

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