Guest Post – Library Love: How Writers Conducted Research Before the Age of the Internet

July 10, 2017 Blogging Guests, On Writing 3

How Writers Conducted Research Before the Age of the Internet

These days, most writers do the exact same thing when they have a question, big or small. They whip out their smartphones or open a new tab in a web browser, and Google provides the answer. In mere seconds, they have the answer to the information they seek. Once upon a time, though, things weren’t so easy or convenient. Whether you wanted quick answers to satisfy mere curiosity or needed to conduct serious research for an important written work, you scheduled a trip to the library.

What was it really like to count on your local library for all your research needs? How have things at the library changed since then and how have they remained the same? Here we’ll take a closer look at how libraries provided information before the age of Google and mobile technology.


Research by the Books

It’s not at all uncommon for writers of all types to consult specific books in their research. However, you really needed to know what you were doing to locate exactly the right one back in the day. To be more specific, you needed solid knowledge when it came to subject-specific bibliographies and subject headings. Today, you simply need to be tech-savvy enough to operate a computer, as well as knowledgeable in regards to keywords.

Old-school writers were limited to the in-house collection available at their local library—at least to some extent. Occasionally, a really dedicated researcher could obtain the title they wanted from an inter-library loan. Today, you’re still somewhat limited in this same way. However, modern writers have the ability to access thousands of additional electronic books at the library, not to mention thousands of titles more widely available on the Internet.

Modern writers do need to be more careful about the quality of the references they trust, though. Once upon a time, the value of a given source was determined according to publisher, author reputation, and critical evaluation. Today, while books are still evaluated in this way, the number of authors who choose to circumvent the traditional publishing process means you must self-vet independent sources with care.


The Periodicals Have It

Just like research books, writers needed to know a thing or two about how to glean valuable information from periodicals. They had to understand how to use a print index, which required an understanding of subject headings and alphabetical order.

Today, that’s all a lot easier. Many popular publications and scholarly sources have sold their content to various databases, accessible through your local library. Finding the articles you need is now as simple as understanding key terms, knowing the author’s name, or being computer literate.

Just like books, access to periodicals provided useful information. Today, you can gain access to a wide variety of useful articles from almost any computer. Writers affiliated with a university can access even more research. It goes without saying that modern writers need to be careful to source quality articles and other available information on the Internet, just like books. Smart researchers don’t just know how to find information. They know how to evaluate it for validity and worth, as well.


Reaching Back into History

If you were a writer in search of historical information and official documents before the Internet age, you sought the help of your local librarian. Librarians perused specialized bibliographies and performed literature searches in order to find the desired content. Alternatively, researching journal articles provided the same results. Today, the Internet allows you to perform the searches at your own volition.

Before the Internet, you had to plan a road trip to gain access to original historical documents or one-of-a-kind publications. They resided in physical archives or special collections dedicated to a specific topic. Today, the archival process offers the same information through a simple Internet search. Even rare, fragile, or unusual documents are digitally preserved and available to researchers everywhere in most cases.

Ask a Librarian

So, what did a writer do when they just had a quick question in the days before they could simply ask Google? They asked a librarian, of course. Curious or information-hungry individuals phoned the library’s research desk and posed their questions. The librarian helped satisfy every query.

You might be surprised to know that little has changed as far as the kinds of questions people ask. Sure, there are serious researchers looking to verify historical facts. However, people in the past asked about anything and everything, just as they do today.

Librarians can answer all those questions, no matter how ordinary or odd, which may surprise people. Many writers still reach out to local librarians when they’re having trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. The personal touch never goes out of style!

You can learn more about how libraries functioned throughout history by exploring regional interest literature on entities like the Boston Public Library, Brooklyn’s Central Library, and many more. Get started today!



Harry is the content manager over at Arcadia Publishing. While he spends most of his time being a bookworm, he enjoys anything outdoors especially if it involves the water.

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3 Responses to “Guest Post – Library Love: How Writers Conducted Research Before the Age of the Internet”

  1. Livia

    Cool post! Last year I was without internet at home and would go to the library for several hours every day to use their free internet. I often sat near the reference desk and that’s how I discovered people really do call or walk up and ask all kinds of random, non-book or library content available type of questions.

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