13 September 2012

Microform Was Ahead Of Its Time (I still hate it)

In the midst of all the career-hunting I've been doing (networking, career counselling, job-searching and job applications), I've been making time to tweak my thesis and turn it into a book manuscript. Fortunately, I chose to write my dissertation as something more book-like than other people seem to think is possible, so I have relatively few things to do before I can submit to a publisher. One of them is using microform - the worst research tool available to historians - to solve a research question posed by my defence committee.

I have avoided microform like the plague for a very long time. As an undergraduate learning the historical trade in the days when CD-Rom and internet-based searches were gradually replacing card catalogues, and when journals were just starting to upload articles using J-Stor and Pub-Med, I developed a strong preference for books. Books were the easiest resource to locate, and they didn't induce eye-strain. In a pinch I didn't mind looking for articles, assuming the journal in question had decent indices of articles printed each year/decade. I have nothing but respect for the people who are willing to scroll through microfilm and microfiche, but if I had to look at microform to improve from an A to an A+, I was perfectly happy to walk away with the A (well okay, B+).

When I started doing archival research, my preference for paper continued. I'd rather go home from the archives at the end of the day covered in little paper bits (they're historical, afterall), than strain my eyes and back in front of one of those machines. They always seemed so tedious, and now that we're starting to digitize materials using the latest technology that includes searchability, well, I simply have no patience for microform.

Sadly for me, I have a current research question, essential to the conversion of my thesis to a book, that requires the use of microform. It will be, I suppose, short-term excruciating pain for a long-term gain ... unless someone knows some microform tricks to ease my suffering.

My examiners gave me a variety of suggestions, some of which were conflicting. The historians of science wanted to see more engagement with the international nature of science, making the uniqueness of the Canadian situation more explicit by comparing to other scientific organizations. I made many comparisons to Canada's allies in my thesis, because there is a cause-effect relationship between Canada's Department of National Defence, the British Ministry of Defence and the American Department of Defense. There is, however, a similarity of scale to Scandinavian countries and other members of the British Commonwealth that I never illustrated. As my thesis is already cumbersome, the only thing I can do with it is strengthen the bits about Canada's belief that it was the most senior of the junior members of NATO - a point illustrated by the Defence Research Board's visiting NATO fellows program (NATO scientists spent a year 'fellowshiping' at DRB establishments). The other thing I can do is spin off an article or book chapter in the next collection about non-American views of science in the Cold War; this will be extremely repetitive to anyone who has bothered to read Canadian military and foreign relations works, but possibly exciting for historians of science, technology and medicine - I guess it's a good thing, for my ability to publish, that many/most historians can be relied upon to avoid reading outside their core fields.

The Canadian labour historian wanted to see more about the bench-level scientists, the technicians and the clerks. I would love to provide this, in fact in my first drafts I included the names and activities of 3 or 4 times as many employees as the final draft, but the result was unreadable. I will have to spin out an article about the workers, something I have ample material to do. As my thesis is more narrative history than anything else, I had to keep the 30 or 40 most central characters, so that readers stood a chance of following who each person was and what they did. Unfortunately, as an institutional history, the people all come across as rather dry, and the connections between them seem rigid and formal. There are hints of the old boys' club at work in my thesis, and I need to find a way to flesh those social networks out to make the decision-making process more clear.

The historian of Canadian scientific institutions loved what I had done, as dull and sleep-inducing as it was for most. He had specific suggestions to make my thesis better as an institutional history and to flesh out the soft-tissues of the personal connections between the various managers. I'd dug up a few things here and there, especially the advice Bob Uffen received to join the Rideau Club when he was named Chairman of the Defence Research Board. As so many of the managers I wrote about are dead, it is fortuitous that my historian of Canadian institutions interviewed some of them before they died. Those interviews not only include mentions of the importance of the Rideau Club, but at least one of the interviews was conducted at the Club.

The second thing I was to do was look into why the Moore Corporation had a research division. Hartley Zimmerman, the second Chairman of the Board, was drawn from Moore's research wing by C.D. Howe in both the Second World War and the Korean War. The question was what kinds of research was Moore doing that would interest Howe's war effort. The answer was not much. Moore's research could more accurately be called product development, and Zimmerman was an experienced manager - a skill he put to work in improving the development and production of DRB's scientific ideas.

The third task I was given, and the one that prompts this blog post, was to examine the importance of salary as status symbol in the civil service in Ottawa. A way to gauge the often complicated social network of managers of science and defence in Ottawa by looking at how much they earned and where they lived. This research requires microform, because Ottawa newspapers published lists of salaries every year - a precursor to the sunshine list. Unfortunately, no one seems to know what day/month/year this happened, so this requires copious scrolling through microforms. I've asked around to see if anyone remembers, at the very least, which of Ottawa's two seasons this list was printed: the snowy seven months, or the "rainy everyday at 4pm" five months. As the edition with the list was one of the best-selling papers of the year, the trick to solving this needle-in-a-haystack problem might be finding the sales statistics.

This leaves me with two research questions:
  1. Where would one find newspaper sales statistics?
  2. How does one use control-f in a microform?
    1. Is anyone working on converting microforms to searchable PDFs?
      1. If so, when will this project be done, especially the Ottawa Citizen and/or Journal?
      2. If not, why?
Postscript. As someone looking for employment, I think I need to look into these elite social clubs. It sounds like one-stop networking, and I've been dying for an opportunity to work on my morning dress and white tie etiquette. Anyone on the fence about sponsoring me for a club will immediately want to endorse me when they realize that I'm ambidextrous at most social club sports (golf, darts, etc.) and I'm a gracious loser, which is convenient because I'm equally terrible both left- and right-handed.


  1. Ottawa Citizen: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=QBJtjoHflPwC

  2. Thanks for reminding me about the Google newspaper archive, anonymous. The last time I tried it out the uploading of editions was incomplete and the search function was less than great ... sad to see it hasn't changed much in the past couple of years. Having just gone through the microforms, I can say that Google is missing a positively fascinating 2 March 1950 edition of the Evening Citizen that included a front-page spread of speculation of how an H-bomb worked.
    It's also not providing useful results for the things I seek, so back to the microforms I go.