In my post “Higher Truth and How to Get There” I talked about how to access and use quality information. In today’s world of manipulative and biased sources, how can one be confident they are getting the “best stuff?” The answer is simple: use the library!
One significant aspect of my transition to junior high school was an expanded relationship with the Queens Borough and New York Public Libraries. With the differences in school assignments between elementary school and junior high school I had to step-up my library research game, especially with my participation on the debate team.
In the competitive debate environment, the ability to locate and cite powerful published materials was essential and gratifying. While the Debate Team activities were always in a group, the research was broken up into areas, and each “researcher” would focus on that aspect of the topic. This meant numerous trips to the library to research the details of the assigned subject. You were constantly hunting for the best “talking points” for the next debate! But, you could not simply make this stuff up – the research was key.
Once there, I made frequent use of the library staff who sat at the “Reference Desk.” These “reference librarians” had (and still do have) all kinds of knowledge about the best resources applicable to any research task. Consulting with these librarians always led to better results. Since I did go to multiple libraries, it was apparent that the reference function was available at every library. I felt I had discovered something amazing, and indeed it was. This meant better grades and getting the work done more quickly. Wow!
Using Periodical Indexes
Because of my assignments, I needed to access periodicals (an unfamiliar word for me, I thought of them as magazines) by subject. Before online access and way before the web, this meant using print “periodical indexes.” At that time, the dominant publisher of these works was the H.W. Wilson Company, located in the Bronx.
Unlike the Card Catalog, which provided access to the library’s book collection, periodical indexes enabled the researcher to find published articles by subject. These tools took the format of an annual bound volume and paperback supplements which provided updates until the next annual was published. Libraries offer similar tools to locate newspaper articles, government documents, and much more.
The basic Wilson index was the “Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature,” which provided access to more than 150 popular magazines. Wilson also published more specialized indexes, such as the “Social Sciences & Humanities Index,” which covered more specialized subject periodicals. These tools were the standard of the time for subject access to magazines and provided deep retrospective coverage as well. The “Readers’ Guide” began publication in 1901 and the “Social Sciences & Humanities Index” started in 1907!
Doing in-depth research with these published works was labor intensive. To cover a time frame beyond a single year, one would have to repeat the same search in each annual bound volume, as well as the current year supplements. Manual notes needed to be taken, as there was no convenient way to record the bibliographic citations that were useful and relevant.
These tools did not provide the full-text, so the next step was to use the citation data (journal name, volume, number, page numbers and date of publication) and go the library’s periodical collection to locate and obtain the full-text articles. Whew!
If anything needed to be automated, it was periodical research, and this did happen starting in the 1970s. After I went on to obtain a master’s degree in Library Science, I worked for several companies that automated library research. These included Information Access Company (now part of Cengage/Gale), who used early computer technology and a clever approach to intellectual property to take on the H.W. Wilson Company.
Virtually all libraries now offer their users access to premium content online resources, including being able to do this from home via a remote connection. The next time you need to get the “good stuff” for any life or research purpose, check out the local library! You’ll be glad you did.