A Research Time Capsule

By November 17, 2014

And now for something completely different…

A few weeks ago, I introduced my first-year students to the Internet Archive, and we played a bit with the Wayback Machine, which has archived portions of the web since its beginning so we can know what digital environments looked like and how they’ve changed over time.

I also had occasion recently to pull out the files I collected while pursuing my undergraduate thesis on Mormon Indian Placement. I conducted that research between 1990 and 1992, which included some library research trips and a month of field research and collecting oral interviews. It was an interesting in-between time to engage in this kind of study. Research began at the literal card catalog in each library. I had access to computers, yes, but laptops were clunky and large, and could not wirelessly connect to anything. So I bought an electric typewriter on which to make my field notes. I carried a cassette tape recorder for interviews, and after I collected them all, I got some funding to rent a transcription machine with a foot pedal stop/start to help me transcribe them and save them on our home desktop. I backed up everything on 3.5″ disks (called floppies, for you millennials). Thinking I might need to present my research at some point, I brought a camera loaded with 35mm film and took a couple rolls of slides. Now all those things are stored in two very heavy cardboard boxes in my attic. I.e. accessible to no one, barely even me.

Tucked among my papers I found this small brochure from the BYU Harold B. Lee Library, listing ALL of its available computer research databases, most of which were installed on the library’s terminals (i.e. not accessed real-time via internet yet) and some of which required the user to switch out numbered CD-ROM disks manually. I thought it such a quaint artifact of early electronic academic resources that I took the liberty of uploading it to the Internet Archive, where it now lives. I’ve also Flipsnack’d it below (sorry it’s sideways, they don’t do landscape orientation apparently). The brochure was published in 1990, which I guess depending on your age seems like either a lifetime ago, or not very long ago at all.

For me this artifact raises all sorts of interesting thoughts: about the pace of change in our discipline, the state of electronic access to information then and now, how research processes change and don’t change, and maybe even a measure of nostalgia for when the known universe of academic resources from a top-notch research library could be contained in a single 8-page xeroxed brochure.


Article filed under From the Archives Memory Methodology, Academic Issues Research Tools


  1. You were using 3-1/2″ floppies in 1990-92? The law office I was working at in those years had a Wang system, which required floppies that were what? 7 inches? 8? And they were truly floppies, not encased in hard plastic

    This is an amazing glimpse back into a nearly forgotten research world. The only research I was doing then was family history. I used steno notebooks and copied out the text of deeds and certificates and whatever in longhand in the library at night, and typed them on that darn Wang during spare moments at work the next day. And I could only print out the typing, not save a digital copy, because I don’t think anybody else in the world was still using Wangs.

    Fun post.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — November 17, 2014 @ 7:15 am

  2. Tona, this is really interesting. When most younger researchers imagine research before the internet, they/we often instinctively think of a pre-computer world. You’ve provided a fun, fascinating, and important snap shot into what you’ve aptly described as “an interesting in-between time.” Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — November 17, 2014 @ 7:26 am

  3. This brings me back to a class I took on “writing in religious studies” at BYU. We couldn’t get through all the resources the HBLL had access too on Mormon History alone in 90 minutes. This is incredible.

    Also, like Christopher, I am fascinated by the “in-between time.” This makes me feel really spoiled for having always had access to the HBLL and UVA’s libraries.

    Comment by J Stuart — November 17, 2014 @ 8:02 am

  4. What are these “floppies” and “disks” you speak of? What happened to 4 X 6 inch note cards and typewriters? … 🙂

    Comment by Gary Bergera — November 17, 2014 @ 4:33 pm

  5. I’m interested in that undergraduate research on the Placement Program and the interviews you did. How would you compare doing research on the Placement program in the 1990s with the technology then with doing such research today? What kinds of resources were available concerning Indigenous Studies in the Mormon context? You could also speak on the context of the time you were doing research, considering the major challenges that LDS Native Americans faced.

    Comment by Farina — November 17, 2014 @ 8:55 pm

  6. Ardis, 8″ floppies. We also seemed to have jumped completely over the 5 1/4″ floppies that used to be ubiquitous. We had some old documents and stuff at home on those 5 1/4 floppies that we finally threw away, as we had no way to read them anymore. I will also admit that early in my career, while still in my twenties, I worked for a company that did all their sales and inventory data entry on punch cards, which we then accessed via the old green screen dumb terminals. Of course, I also remember old Data General minicomputers running core memory, and state of the art in disk storage was a 96MB array the size of a washing machine with five fixed platters of 16MB each, and a removable platter of 16MB that looked like two garbage can lids hooked together. Seriously, none of that stuff would be even readable by anyone at this point, outside of a couple of computer museums.

    Comment by kevinf — November 18, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

  7. Tona, thanks for publishing this. I was one of the General Reference student staff from 1989-1992. We published these guides, and I cannot tell you how excited we were when we received a new resource and had to update.

    The Phone Disc listed on here was a huge hit when it came out. And yes, you had to change out the CD-ROMs to access all the info. Every time we received a new version (usually something like every 3-6 months) people would get excited about the updates. This also applied to the Wilsondiscs located at various reference areas in the library.

    I was also a member of the CARS team (Computer Assisted Research Services) who had the great good fortune of being trained to go “live” on the Information Superhighway, or Internet, for short, and do research in a variety of major online services. This was fee-based, so we were required to set up our search in advance of going online, making certain to have all the terminology and data we were looking for outlined. You knew you were good if you could keep the searches down to a few minutes because you had been thorough. I wonder what it would have cost us to just “surf” like we do now? Doesn’t bear thinking about, since we were very expensive back then.

    Those of us who worked Gen Ref weren’t just students getting a sweet gig at the HBLL. Every one of us was heading for an MLIS or other advanced degree. We worked with two of the best men I have ever known: Don Howard and K. Haybron Adams. They really put us through our paces and gave us opportunities that put us ahead of the game upon graduation. I was even the “voice” of the library for a time, doing the recordings for holidays and hours. I still miss closing down (Hawaii 5-0) and racing through so I could walk out the door to “Happy Trails to You”. Yes, we’ve changed over time, but the HBLL has ALWAYS been cool.

    Comment by Michele Richings — November 19, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

  8. “What are these “floppies” and “disks” you speak of? What happened to 4 X 6 inch note cards and typewriters? … :-)”

    The HBLL now has vending machines that sell food and office supplies. The most popular office supply is 4×6 note cards. The Media Center (formerly the LRC) has a typewriter and the ribbon is replaced more often than you would expect. Of course we provide access to electronic journals, databases, and e-books as well. You can search everything on your phone if you would like: lib.byu.edu.

    Comment by Roger Layton — November 21, 2014 @ 3:11 pm


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