Research — Then and Now

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I’ll never forget my first research assignment. My teacher asked me to put together a short history of the community in which I lived. So I walked to the center of our small village, I found the oldest man in our town, and I asked him to tell me everything he remembered.

Okay, so maybe I’m not really that old, but I think I have officially crossed over from the cool, young teacher to the old curmudgeon. I’ve become one of those guys who says, “I remember when I was in school . . . ,” or “Students today don’t know how good they have it.”

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Images from Wikimedia

Obviously, the research process has changed dramatically during the last 50 years. I wrote my first research paper when I was a senior in high school during the spring of 1969. I chose to write about the USS Pueblo, an American ship that was captured by North Korea in January 1968, because the ship was supposedly spying in Korean waters. The captain, Lloyd M. Bucher, and his 82 crew members were held hostage and tortured for 11 months before they were finally released. Naturally, this story was big news at that time, and I wanted to know more about it.

So, first, I Googled the words “Bucher” and “Pueblo,” and I found 10 million articles on the subject. Then, I printed the first five articles on the list, I read them, and I wrote the paper. The whole process took maybe an hour. No, that was not the case. The research process was a bit more complicated back then.

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First, I went to our school’s library, and I began to look through The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. This was a small, green, weekly periodical that catalogued all the magazine articles written during the previous week. Eventually, these weekly editions were combined to form bigger volumes that covered a month or two or even an entire year or more. The hardbound version of the annual edition weighed about 40 pounds, and each library had two professional weightlifters on the staff to help researchers go through these volumes. Today, in fact, since those old volumes are no longer needed, the government uses them to reinforce bridge supports along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers.

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As I looked through The Readers’ Guide, I also had to consult the list of magazines that our library carried to see if the articles I sought would be available. Since I attended a small, Catholic school, our periodical collection was somewhat limited. (I think we had Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated.) Then, once I found a few articles that I thought were appropriate and were available, I had to go to the stacks of magazines that were shelved in a special section. At that point, too, I usually said a short, two-part prayer: I prayed that, first, the magazine itself would be in the right spot, and, second, that the article would still be in the magazine. Believe it or not, some Catholic-school-boy classmates were known to steal a magazine or to rip an article out of a magazine if they needed it for their own research papers.

Why would anyone steal or rip an article out of a magazine if he could just as easily make a copy? Because he couldn’t just as easily make a copy. Our school library didn’t get its first copier until later that year (a big deal, believe me). So if my prayers were answered and I actually found the article I needed, then I had to do something almost unimaginable to today’s students: I had to read the article and actually take notes on it. While that particular step involved a lot more work than printing and highlighting the key information, I have a feeling I had a better understanding of my material as a result.

Image from Wikimedia

Finally, once I had all my ideas and sources organized, I had to sit down at an old manual typewriter, with erasable bond paper, and pound the keys until I got blisters on my fingertips. If I made a mistake, I had to actually erase the error and type it again. If I decided to move a paragraph, I had to retype the whole page. And if I wanted to check the spelling and the grammar when I was finished, I had to do it myself. Sometimes I wonder how I ever survived the twentieth century.

So am I really an old curmudgeon? No, not really. I love the students here at Hudson Valley Community College, and I love helping them with their research papers. But when one of them starts to complain about how hard the whole process is, I get a faraway look in my eyes, and I say, “Son, let me tell you about the research process when I was a boy.”

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Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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