I won't tell you I walked five miles uphill in the snow to school, but I do remember the days before computers. The days when correspondence was handwritten, research papers were typed on a manual typewriter, Liquid Paper was a miracle, and Google didn’t exist.
One day a few years ago, I glanced at our bookshelf in the living room and noticed books I’d never told 10-year-old Cowboy about.
“You see these books with letters A through Z on them? These are called encyclopedias.” He looked less than enthralled, but nodded his head to appease me. I remembered how excited I’d been buying that set from a door-to-door salesman nine years earlier. It had felt like a grownup purchase that solidified us as a family.
Doc, my brother, read encyclopedias for fun when he was in the third grade. Once when he and Dad had a disagreement about something, Mom chimed in to Dad, “You’d better be careful; he reads encyclopedias.” Later, she learned at a school function that it’s common for third graders to enjoy reading them. I credit Doc’s in-depth knowledge of all things trivial to his childhood habit.
I thumbed through a few volumes with Cowboy, showing him the different subjects covered. He remained unimpressed with the words, and continued looking at the pictures, just like I’d done when I was his age.
All my research papers prior to college involved using encyclopedias. When I was growing up, we had two sets. The Golden Book Encyclopedia set for children had better pictures and colors, but if I needed hardcore information, I turned to the serious-looking brown ones with gold lettering on the spines, the New Standard Encyclopedia set. The latter came with quarterly updates each year, to keep readers abreast of progress in everything from Art to Zanzibar.
If I couldn’t find enough information at home, I went across the street to Lylas' house to borrow her World Book Encyclopedias, the gold standard of the information world. As a last resort, I used the Encyclopedia Britannica volumes in the school library.
I loved researching. I know; it’s like a flashing neon “Nerd” sign on my forehead. While all my classmates were complaining, I dug deeper and deeper into the world of knowledge. It was fun, like building something with words.
Before composing my paper, I wrote notes on 3-by-5 index cards. The facts and quotes written on the cards were taken from various sources, which meant finding a lot of published works to support my research. I had to keep track of source titles, copyright dates, and page numbers of every piece of information I gathered. It was like writing a bill for legislation, but I worked harder than some congressmen do and made considerably less money. Finally, when all cards were done, I used the academic writing pyramid model to compose an introduction, body, and conclusion for my paper.
Those papers were labor-intensive; they took weeks to complete. Of course, not being one to procrastinate, I often went without sleep the night before they were due. As did my devoted mother.
“Oh my gosh…” I’d whine from the den. Sometimes the whine included tears. “I’m never going to finish this. I’m so tired.”
Repeatedly, Mom would come to my rescue. But not before saying, “Why do you wait until the last minute?”
“I don’t know. I do my best work under tight deadlines.”
“Yes, but your deadline is keeping me from sleeping.”
I didn’t blame her for her frustration. Well, okay, I did blame her. But I was young and self-absorbed. Now, I get it. What sane mother wants to endure that unique torture when she won’t even get a grade for helping her children? Do mothers across the world take the red-eye to StudyLand, pouring cup after cup of coffee while they pose as research assistants, out of the goodness of their hearts?
Don’t bet on it. Childbirth is enough, and it has a payoff, most days. Moms help their baby birds complete the task so the little darlings will pass the class, graduate, and fly out of the nest.
And if the composition process at 2 a.m. didn’t make mothers want to rethink birth control, typing up the bibliography did. Forget nuclear arms. The second most effective weapon in the modern world would be forcing our enemies to sit at a manual typewriter and write a list of sources with last name, comma, first name, period, the name of the source, the author, and the copyright year.
The most effective weapon would be making them type footnotes, one and a half inches from the bottom of the pages, as required. This sinister process drove me to unacceptable language as I ripped page after page out of the typewriter. And the superscripted number for each note wasn’t built in. No, we had to roll the paper down by a half space, type the number in, then roll the paper back up. The author name had to be typed as first name followed by last name, the opposite of what was required for bibliography entries. God help the student who confused the two.
If your parents picked your name using an internet search, dear reader, you’re too young to understand the pain I’m describing.
Today, I googled “How to write a footnote.” WikiHow popped up with a nice little picture of how to insert a footnote into a document. Tell me there’s no God; He came up with that as an answer to prayers from every tormented soul from the Typewriter Age. I’m also crediting the Almighty with evolution: manual typewriters evolved into electric ones that evolved into huge computers that evolved into word processors that evolved into desktop computers that evolved into personal computers at home that evolved into laptops that evolved into tablets. From there, it’s been iThis and iThat and a million different programs that make life worth living.
Several weeks ago, I noticed our family encyclopedias again. I’d been filling bags in the garage with unwanted items in an attempt to simplify life. It’s a new life phase I’m testing.
“Do you think we should hang onto these encyclopedias for Cowboy?”
“We haven’t cracked one open since 2008,” my killjoy husband said.
“Sure we have,” I lied.
“When? We’re never going to use them again.”
I ran my fingers over the volumes and tried to convince myself they were necessary.
“Just throw them away,” the heartless man said.
“Throw them away? That’s awful. You can’t discard knowledge.”
“What are you talking about? We discard knowledge every day. Go ahead – tell me something. Anything. In four hours, I won’t remember it. Knowledge is expendable these days. We’re lucky if we remember to put the clothes in the dryer within 24 hours of washing them. It’s an act of God that our dogs haven’t starved. I’m sorry; what was your name?”
I leered, then sadly replied, “But these were one of our first purchases as a family.”
“Then keep them.”
There’s something about hearing your spouse agree to keep things that sets you free to change your mind. “No, I’ll give them away.”
Flash gave me his then-why-did-you-ask-me look.
He was right, but don’t tell him. Google had long ago replaced encyclopedias in my life, and I’m training Cowboy in googling, also. Everything I ever need to know is at my fingertips. And Wikipedia doesn’t have to be taken off the bookshelf and dusted once a year. It’s a win-win.
How many cups are in a quart? Google it. Oh sure, every homeschooling mom just rolled her eyes at that last query; their kids know how to find the circumference of a circle at age 3. Don’t judge my measuring skills. I have more important things to remember. Such as how many different kinds of cows are there? Google it. When is Easter this year? Don’t walk to the calendar hanging in the kitchen. Google it. What time will Flash be home from work tonight? That had better not be on Google.
I now live in a magical land of research that will never require measuring, by hand, for hideous footnotes. I have evolved into a 21st century woman. But not without a little - okay, a lot – of kicking and screaming.
When I first worked as a technical editor for a NASA contractor, we used red pens or pencils to edited documents written by engineers. After marking them up, we passed them on to the Word Processing department. People in Word Processing, who understood things called software programs, made our changes on computers, and printed out clean copies for us to check. This process repeated until we had the most readable copy of the document to give back to the customer. Sometimes, it took weeks to finish a document or months to finish a large project.
Then, everything changed. And I’m allergic to change.
Soon, we were sending documents to Word Processing to be scanned, and editors were required to edit them on new computers located in common areas. There were no options. Nobody said “please.”
They’ll have to pry this red pen out of my dry, shriveled hand when I’m 80, I told myself.
But my employer had other ideas. To keep my job, I had to learn quickly how to edit on a computer. “We’ll have training to show you how to use the software,” they said. I doubted my ability to learn the New World.
In the beginning was Word. That seemed pretty straightforward and simple, until I had to add page numbers, headers, and footers. Well, at least I don’t have to hand measure for footnotes, I consoled myself.
Then, another change came, much scarier than the first.
The name I learned to hate was “Excel.” We were trained to create “macros” in Excel spreadsheets. It may seem rudimentary now, but back then it was cutting edge. I never fully caught on, and decided pregnancy would be a better option than continuing in the futility of macros. My former colleagues are under the impression that I retired from editing to stay home with Cowboy after he was born; the real reason was the birth of Excel.
With time, I’ve adjusted to progress. I’ve let go of some old-school writing tools such as encyclopedias and my Brother Word Processor from 1990, although the latter is keeping residence in our garage until it’s an antique.
But I’m keeping my dictionaries and my two copies of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I still prefer hardcopies of books to electronic reading, and don’t see myself evolving to Kindle in this lifetime. I like the sound of pages turning, and seeing how much I have left until I get to the end of a book. And so, with one hand firmly clutching my Roget’s Thesaurus and the other hand on a mouse, I have the best of both worlds.