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How Americans found information before the Internet

How was information used before the age of Google? Cookbooks showed people how to make new dishes; instructions packed with disassembled toys carried the terror-filled message “some assembly required” and ensured hours of labor on Christmas Eve for millions of parents. Today, people “Google,” but this kind of information gathering has occurred since the seventeenth century. When colonists landed in North America on the Mayflower in the 1600s, they started tracking who lived in towns in order to know how many teachers they needed to educate their children about the Bible, reading, arithmetic, and local colonial customs.

Why do we care about how people used information? Given the enormous amount of data we can obtain with Google searches, for example, we need to know how to sift through the 1.5 million hits for the ten we really could use. If you are helping a child prepare a paper for their class, the old idea of the family encyclopedia comes in pretty handy, but today we use a PC or an iPad, not the 12-volume Britannica. Obtaining information is as important as ever, yet we are not taught in any formal manner how to find and use information effectively. So, what does the historical record suggest people used to do?

They treated information as a tool. Much like you would reach out for a hammer to pound in a nail, people reached out for facts to facilitate research, answer a question being raised in conversation at a bar, or get directions to the zoo with a carload of noisy children. The devices they used to get to information were physical, such as a newspaper or book in the 1700s and 1800s. Because most Americans and Western Europeans could afford many of these tools by the 1870s, they acquired every new tool that became available.

Information and its tools acquired for one purpose were applied in other parts of peoples’ lives. In the 1880s, someone might learn about budgeting at work, then create a budget for their church. The practice of consulting military manuals on how to fix cars, trucks, and airplanes gave veterans confidence to fix lawnmowers, home heaters, and their own cars, relying on similar manuals.

Image credit: Encyclopedias by Rishabh Mishra. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr
Encyclopedias by Rishabh Mishra. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

As new bodies of information appeared, people sought these out. In the 1920s, psychologists discovered a whole new species: human teenagers. Before their discovery, these were just young workers. But with the discovery—or invention—of teenagers, parents sought out information on how to manage or control them because even in the 1920s teenagers wanted to use the family car, needed “walking around” money, and discovered premarital sex. Since then, hundreds of books and hundreds of thousands of articles have been published and sought out by parents dealing with this new development.

New information expanded rapidly during the mid-1800s when the Second Industrial Revolution began. In the 1880s, people needed to know how to install a toilet (the new fashion). Once refrigerators had freezer compartments in the 1920s, information was needed on how to cook using frozen food. In the 1980s, people learned how to operate a PC by relying on Microsoft’s user manuals, then later the PCs for Dummies books. In fact, people ran out so fast to acquire these kinds of practical guides that DOS for Dummies sold over a million copies in its first couple of years.

The arrival of the Internet opened a new era of accessibility to information, perhaps too much. However, people had learned how to find information in books, magazines, and conversations, and had learned to focus on immediately-needed facts. That same discipline is now imposed on the Internet. At work, people are taught to rely on algorithms, formulas developed by information providers to filter out what someone does not want. Instead of getting 1.5 million citations in Google, people are learning that artificial intelligence can get that down to, say, 100 or fewer.

They are carrying that expectation of the Internet and its tools over to their private lives. They want it to be even better. When MapQuest offered you three possible routes to your destination in the early 2000s, you became irritated because you just wanted to get somewhere as fast as possible. Today, you tap your smart phone and Siri calmly tells you how to get to your destination without giving options. The system knows you want to get there directly and quickly.

Googling in the twenty-first century is about searching using the Internet. Googling in the 1700s was about looking up things in a book. By the mid-1800s, it was about going down to your neighborhood library. The tools changed, but not the habits. That is why the history of how people used information is useful to know. It offers “best practices” to get information fast.

Featured image credit: Workspace by Tim Dorr. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

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