Looking Back

Gathering information the old-school way

By Mary Ellen Shaw

The method for obtaining information on any subject has certainly changed since my school days in the ’50s and ’60s.

I remember my mother getting a set of encyclopedias earned with her grocery store purchases. The books had a green, hard cover and they came into our home one by one as she accumulated enough points. I used them for many of my homework assignments.

However, writing essays sometimes required research done in either the school library or the Rutland Free Library. The library at Mount St. Joseph Academy was fairly good-sized. I think teachers tried to choose subjects for us to write about based on the reference material that was easily accessible in the school library during our free periods.

It was a “no nonsense” library with Sr. Clementine patrolling the tables to make sure we were tending to business. No talking was allowed and you learned to write fast, as study halls were only about 45 minutes long.

Parents hoped that their children would come home with all the information needed for our paper – otherwise someone had to bring us to the public library after supper. My mother seemed to be the “designated driver.” There were always one or two of my friends to pick up along the way. At times my mother would comment to me, “Doesn’t anyone else’s mother know how to drive?” Of course, she had to go back home and wait for me to call from the library phone when we were done. Wouldn’t she have loved the days of cell phones?

The Court Street entrance to the library brought you directly into the reference room. There were several tables with numerous chairs and your basic reference books were right in that room. However, if your research needed to go a step further you headed to the card catalogs. They were wooden cabinets with information shown alphabetically on the front of each drawer. They told you all the books that were available in the library by subject, author or title. The cards also told you the section of the library where you could find the book you needed.

I was a frequent library user back when I was both a student and a teacher. Even though the high school where I taught was small, there was a decent library and classes could be taught about the Dewey Decimal system. When I transitioned from education to the business world my days of using card catalogs pretty much ended.

These days research can be done from the comfort of home. I often write articles that tell about local history. The Rutland Historical Society’s website and Google have most of the information I need right at my fingertips. When I need to go to the Rutland Free Library for research it usually involves spending time in the Vermont Room. As I bring books back and forth from the shelves to the table, I am reminded of my school days. I have to take notes as the books in this section must remain in the library.

Recently I needed a new library card to access the archived newspapers that are available on their website. It’s somewhat embarrassing to say that my old card was rejected because of its age. I am an avid reader but all my books come from their basement sales where no card is needed. I like to own my books, so I won’t worry about a due date or a page acquiring a little garden dirt. Reading during my breaks from gardening is not a good way to keep books clean.

As I was waiting for my new card to be prepared, my mind kept going back to the card catalogs that used to be in that section. They were like old friends. Computers near the back of the library now hold all the information that used to be in those wonderful wooden cabinets.

Times have changed and in this case it’s for the better. I feel pretty spoiled on a cold, winter day when I sit in the comfort of my home and use my trusty computer to bring up even more information than I could have found in the card catalogs.

See … you can teach an old dog new tricks!

One comment on “Gathering information the old-school way

  1. The article above written by Mary Ellen Shaw is great and a memory buster for me. I remember the library very well and I also remember the card catalog. Although I was not quite as serious as Mary Ellen when it came to studying I tried very hard to stay out of trouble. Mary Ellen and I were childhood neighbors and I just can’t imagine a better friend to have during that period of time. We remain friends to this day and continue to keep up with each others lives. Betty

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