I moved quickly to the day’s reading,
but the students didn’t follow, stuck on
the assignment, eyes fixed and more
than a few jaws hanging.
I looked around and said, “What?”
One in front mumbled, “What do
“No Web. That a problem?”
More blank stares until someone
took the bait.
“What’re we supposed to do?”
Others nodded in agreement.
I said, “You’re supposed to do what
people did for decades before search
engines came along.” Still no recognition on their faces; they didn’t know
how research proceeded in such primitive pre-digital times. The search engine
has proven so helpful and sufficient over
the semesters that they never bothered
with any other non-digital method.
When it’s removed, they flounder.
I outlined the steps. Get the date of
death from an encyclopedia or biography. Ask the reference librarian where to
find old newspapers. Get help with the
microfilm machine. It took 20 minutes
to set up, a short procedure that should
seem quick even for digital immigrants.
But to the digital natives in the seats
arrayed before me, it all sounded pointless and terribly time-consuming. When
we can get it a-thousand-times faster,
why bother with the old or indeed any
Because, I tried to explain, some-
times the research experience is as
important as the sought-after informa-
tion itself. In this case, I was teaching
my students to learn something with-
out the Web and that the non-digital
process could be an end in itself.
The search engine carries students
directly to the text. Microfilm carries
them to a regular old paper-and-ink
newspaper, where they must comb
through issues and pages before reach-
ing the obituary. Along the way, they
read headlines, scan photographs and
advertisements, and note op-eds. For
instance, the Atlanta Constitution
mourned Twain’s death in an editorial
entitled “Mark Twain, World-Servant.”
To find it, students scroll over the
front page display of photos: the head-
quarters and officers of the Daughters
of the American Revolution, a Paris
banquet for ex-President Teddy
Roosevelt, and the electric chair for a
New York City 19-year-old man who
tortured and killed a 15-year-old girl.
One column provided updates on
aristocrats in Europe headed “Old
World Court Gossip,” and others
covered a gathering of Confederate
veterans in Mobile, AL, for the 45th