As a sophomore in college, I took a 2-credit Library & Information Sciences course, mostly because it led to a stack pass. (I don’t need to explain to this community why a person would want a stack pass at the University of California at Berkeley. To other people, I tended to link it to my habit of exploring the stream tunnels off of Strawberry Creek and wandering through buildings whose subjects I did not study.)
One lecture covered the card catalog—a glorious thing in oaken cases, filling a whole room on its own. The instructor mentioned that the drawers still contained a number of handwritten cards. That afternoon, after class, I decided to search for one. I still retain a strong visual memory of the moment I succeeded, twenty-three years ago: the color of the sleeve of my T-shirt, pushed halfway up my forearm; the pattern of golden woodgrain in the sunbeam; the precise shade of the ink of the copperplate entry describing an 1872† edition of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica.
I was thinking of that moment as I read this article*, by Professor Greg Downey. He teaches a freshman class on Media Fluency for the Digital Age at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (He also runs a really good blog on the subject, unsurprisingly). One of the class assignments was:
Finding information that’s not online. Find an article (research journal article, analytic newspaper article, serious magazine article, or scholarly book chapter) that is on the topic of the Internet or new media, but not available (at least, not to you) on the Internet, and acquire a digital copy of that article. In a one-page, single-spaced write-up, document the steps you took to (a) find the article, (b) ensure that it was not available to you online, and (c) find out how to get it offline, (d) digitize it, (e) use optical character recognition software to make your text searchable, and (f) save the file to MyWebSpace and give your TA permission to view it. Paste the full URL of your file at the end of your write-up.
The assignment forced students to move out of their usual research modes. Some of the things they did were traditional: go to the library, ask a librarian, read a book. Others were interestingly modern, such as finding items on eBay. It’s worth reading the whole article to get a shape of the work they did.
It’s tempting to harrumph and grumble about how the Young ‘Uns are missing out on a wealth of information sources because they’re not digitized, and to be pleased that they’ve finally got access to the Good Stuff (like wot we had). It’s easy to turn the story into a New Media versus Old Media turf war, yet again, as always. But the real reason I bring the article to your attention is how well Downey conveys the pleasure of seeing students find the deep roots of their knowledge, and how he, from their reaction, gives us a glimpse of the world that they inhabit.
And that, more than anything else, is the heart of the academy.
† Date corrected after reference to the record in the online catalog.
* link via @jkaizer on Twitter