Friday, April 30, 2010

Of Ipods and Microforms

There are times as a Research Assistant that I’m very thankful for my ipod. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Hillman Library lately, researching the imports and exports of opium from the British Parliamentary Papers. I’m not going to lie. It can get a little tedious, and I’m glad I have the music and podcasts coming from my headphones to keep me company. Sometimes I wonder what research assistants did before they had this helpful piece of technology to get them through times like this.

I am getting quite a view of some the technology they had to deal with though. There’s this machine way in the back recesses of the microfiche room called a Readex Microprint reader. I’ve been using it to view the vast amounts provided by the British Parliamentary Papers. The process is painstaking. After consulting an index and locating the right microprint card out of tens of thousands, I scroll through the statistical tables of imports/exports for a particular colony for a particular year until I locate opium. Then, after squinting for quite some time at the screen, I make out the quantity and value of opium and note copy it into an excel document. I then double check the numbers by adding the total for each country being imported from or exported to and making sure it matches the total listed in the original document. You can view the initial results here. (Be sure there is more to come. A lot more.)

I’ve been in the library enough in the past month that the staff members in the Microform room know me by sight. They smile and say hi. Eventually one of them came up to me to ask me how many cards I had used so far. That’s when I realized why I was so recognizable. I was the only person that ever used the Microprint Reader. In fact, they needed to know how many cards I had used so they could tell their administrators that people still used it.

The Readex Microprint Reader is somewhat old and cumbersome. In fact, I came across an article in The Journal of Documentation where D.T. Richnell noted that “In academic libraries, in particular, it has been felt that the advantage of possessing in compact form such material as the Microprint edition of the Three Centuries of Drama has been outweighed by the fact that members of the academic staff were unwilling to subject themselves to the strain of prolonged reading on these reading machines.” That article was written in 1957.

Sometimes I think about what this kind of research will be like years from now. Will humble research assistants still rely on their ipods to get them through the more monotonous parts of the day? Or will there be some other form of technology they’ll be thanking? Our hope with the Dataverse is that with the help of many contributors there will be a massive depository of data freely available in an easy to use format, allowing scholars and researchers to get on with the important work of testing hypotheses about large-scale historical patterns.

I also wonder how long that Readex Microprint Reader will be in the Hillman Library. And what will happen to all the information that can be read from it if we don’t get it online fast enough…

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