The price of knowledge and the power of the librarian

Googling something has become a reflex action for many of us. We expect Google (or Bing or … what’s that other one called?) to provide an answer. And we expect that answer to be free.

It wasn’t always thus, as I was reminded when trawling through an archive of old articles. Occasionally, alongside the article itself, I’ve found some of my notes and research files. Increasingly, from the late 1980s, I carried out that research online. But that wasn’t always a cheap option – take a look at the prices mentioned in this logged output from a session (shown being edited in WordStar 5).

Already $5 down and it’s going to cost me $91 for 10 full-text articles! The ‘.CIS’ extension to the file suggests this session was perhaps carried out via CompuServe.

The actual search, though, used one of my favourite online sources, Dialog, which I mostly accessed via Telecom Gold (aka BT Gold). At the time Dialog was owned by Thomson Reuters and its database included a wealth of magazines, newspapers and the news agency’s own material. But cheap it wasn’t. At the end of that file is the bill – $135.

This was pre-broadband days, where everything was done via dial-up. I’d get the modem to dial Telecom Gold, log in and then type the command to connect to Dialog. From the moment I confirmed that I wanted to connect I’d be charged per minute of connect time. I think the charges changed over time – going from (admittedly hazy) memory, I think that initially it was £1 a minute but eventually went up to double that. This was at a time when I might be paid £150-£200 for an article. The connect time for Telecom Gold itself would be charged on top of the Dialog fee.

The only thing that made this kind of research feasible was … I wasn’t paying that bill. I mostly used Telecom Gold or Dialog accounts belonging to whatever publishing house I was writing for. I think they knew I was doing this.

In those days, online searching was a skill. Let me illustrate that with a story.

In 1985 I was freelancing for a company that published ‘partworks’ – weekly publications that you would collect and put in binders to create an encyclopaedia on a particular subject. In this case, the subject was space and astronomy. About once every couple of weeks I’d have the pleasure of strolling down to London’s Science Reference Library (SRL) in Holborn to carry out basic research for a series of articles. I wasn’t going to write those articles but I needed to know enough about the subject to properly brief a writer.

Most of the time I could get what I needed by being guided to relevant books and journals by the card index system. But occasionally I needed to dig deeper. So I’d ask my editor for a search budget.

The librarians at the SRL were unfailingly helpful and knowledgeable. And one in particular was adept at using online databases. She’d start by grilling me about the search terms I wanted to use. She always managed to refine the search long before we logged on to anything, identifying terms that would be too broad or ambiguous and others that would help us pinpoint the information we were after.

Then she’d log on, make the initial search, printing the results on a dot matrix printer, and then quickly log off again. We’d pore over the results – which would be references to publications – and, using her expert knowledge of the contents of the library, we’d further refine our parameters. Then she’d do a final search, printing off references to books and journals I could then read in the library or, very occasionally, printing out a full-text article.

Her skill and knowledge saved my publisher a small fortune and ensured that I got the best-quality information for my needs.

We can think ourselves lucky that, these days, so much of the world’s knowledge is freely available (although certainly not all – paywalls are a fact of life even on the wonderful web). But I hope there are still researchers with the skills of that librarian, because even the magic of Google isn’t always enough to find what you need.


1 thought on “The price of knowledge and the power of the librarian

  1. cph

    I was first introduced DIALOG and similar databases (BRS, Wilsonline, etc.) when I was getting my Masters in Library Science at UCLA, in the late 1980s. Yes, they were expensive to search (there was one database that charged $100 per full-text report!), although, the school paid a reduced rate because it was teaching librarians how to search.

    With rates like that, it obviously made sense to write out your search strategy *before* signing on, and making your actual on-line time as short as possible.

    We also had certain databases on CD-ROM; we could search those as much as we wanted without worrying about the cost. Offline retrieval programs (such as Grateful Med for the US National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database) were also available. Type in your search, click “Go” and the program would log on, do the search, retrieve the results, and log off for you. No running up a big bill because you forgot to log out.

    Web access to most databases started around 2000 or so, IIRC. Either they are free to the user (PubMed MEDLINE, etc.) or are paid for by the institution, library etc. (EBSCOhost, Proquest, Gale, etc.). Ether way, the end-user is free to search and download as much as desired.


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