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Kerrying On

Wild Dogs and Card Catalogues: An Ode to the Cloud

It was the wish of Bellingham School District No. 501 that starting in the seventh grade, each student write a weekly theme and an annual term paper—and continue this practice throughout all of his or her junior high and high school years. Themes were easy. I would sit down and write whatever cockamamie idea came to mind, turn it in, and then have it torn apart by college English majors who graded my work with a red pencil and hatchet.

Unfortunately, we weren’t taught much about how to actually write. In fact, I don’t remember being taught anything about writing. The theory was: throw young writers in the water and see if they learn to avoid torturing a metaphor. In any case, every week I wrote a paper that would come back marked with terms such as AWK, ¶, and DANG MOD.

This confidence-killing technique was small potatoes compared to the esteem-crushing, soul-sucking damage caused by the annual term paper. Unlike themes, term papers required library research from original sources. That meant I had to walk a mile to my grandfather’s grocery store and buy three-by-five note cards.

“Poe, Twain—and I believe the Bard himself—used three-by-five cards,” My seventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Lewis, explained. “It’s how you organize your thoughts.”

Required cards in hand, I walked another mile and a half to the city library to start my research. And yes, I did have to fight off wild dogs along the way. It was the fifties and wild dogs roamed the countryside. No kidding.

Once I arrived at the library, I milled about looking confused until Mrs. Huffington, the reference librarian, asked me if I needed help. This was, of course, said in a tone that indicated needing help was a sign of being hopelessly dimwitted. I told her about my upcoming term paper, explaining that I had narrowed my subject matter from a treatise on the universe to twelve pages about the planets.

Mrs. Huffington sneered at my topic, which she said was “grossly unfocused,” took me to a three-mile-long card catalog, and then stood me in front of the P drawers. I chuckled at the sound of the expression “P drawers,” while thumbing my way through an endless list of references about planets. Eventually I picked a reference, recorded the code required to find it, and headed to the stacks.

After a long and dispiriting search, I came to a group of journals that sported numbers, letters, and secret symbols similar to the code I had written, only to discover that the edition I wanted wasn’t on the shelf. So I hiked back to the sea of boxes, selected another reference, wandered the stacks, found the journal, turned to the section that had the information about planets, and—voilà—discovered that the pages I needed had been ripped out! This heinous act had surely been perpetrated by a previous student who didn’t want to go to the trouble of writing down the information on his three-by-five cards. And obviously they couldn’t photo copy the pages because the copy machines you can now find in every library nook and cranny hadn’t been invented yet.

By now it was growing late, so I exited the library and started down the road that would take me the two-and-a-half miles home—without a single piece of information for my term paper.

It only got worse. Between slogs to the library, I had to read extremely complicated material about the planets—including Saturn, Neptune, Pluto, Mickey, and Dopey. (I was tempted to work this line into my term paper, but came to my senses). I also had to learn about the proper use of Latin footnote terms such as “op. cit.” and “ibid” in preparation for the imminent resurgence of the Roman Empire.

Then came the monumental job of typing the paper on our family’s manual Remington portable typewriter. And heaven forbid I make a mistake! Typos had to be erased with a steel-belted, paper-shredding Eberhard Faber eraser. I made so many mistakes and attempted so many corrections, that my final product was a real dog’s breakfast. It was so trashed, if you held it up to the light, it looked like a papyrus manuscript—had ancient scholars used an Aramaic Remington portable.

After feverishly working on my project for several weeks, I submitted it and eagerly awaited my grade. I had worked hard and was proud of my final document. I shouldn’t have been. It came back covered with red marks of all sorts—and the grade of a C- over a D+.

“Look at this wonderful paper,” Mr. Lewis exclaimed as he held up Sally Welch’s glorious effort. My classmate, Sally, had her term paper typed by her mother on a fancy electric machine, and it had zero typos. Plus her parents had done most of the research and writing, earning Sally an A+ over an A+. But that didn’t stop Sally from smiling broadly as Mr. Lewis heaped on the praise. She was clearly bound for glory. Whereas I, the C- over D+ student, would probably end up in the food services industry as my school guidance counselor had suggested earlier that year. No lie.

At this point you may think I’m about to launch into a rant about questionable teaching methods and egregious inequities. Not so. I’m simply trying to provide background material, particularly for people under the age of forty, for the thanks I’m about to offer.

“What thanks?” you ask. I recently spoke to a group of Google executives. But before I started into my assigned topic, I offered my heartfelt appreciation for their work, as well as the work of other search-engine designers.

I had just completed an entire book, chock full of citations from original material, and in so doing, was not once attacked by a dog. I never had to hike in the pouring rain only to discover the reference book I sought was missing. I never had to pull a journal down from the shelf only to have key pages ripped out. Instead, I cheerfully scooted my computer mouse here and there, occasionally twitched my index finger, and magically uncovered material that years earlier, would have taken days to find.

I now have the entire library of congress—along with just about anything anybody who ever had a thought has had to say—at my fingertips. Thank you search-engine inventors, code writers, data scanners, and people who vacuum and do the plumbing for The Cloud. Thank you for turning our world into a place where information is as available and cheap as air itself.

I know, we’re not always sure what to do with all the information that silently beams into our space in giga-, tera-, and super-giga-tera bundles. Nevertheless, it’s time to offer a “good on ya” to everyone out there who has made information that used to be largely unattainable a mere click away.

My guess is that my grandkids will never have a clue how hard it used to be to research and write a term paper—and I’m fine with that. But one thing is for certain: as they put together their papers, they won’t be chased by dogs.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

41 thoughts on “Wild Dogs and Card Catalogues: An Ode to the Cloud”

  1. How well I remember those days and the red pencils. When I returned to school at age 65 for a degree now required in my profession that I have performed well for the past 40 years, I was introduced to APA format and found that all I had learned was now passe” and thank goodness WORD does APA all by itself!

  2. I get so excited when I see that one of my endless emails is actually one of your posts. You have a nostalgic touch that always lingers and makes me wish there was another story or train of thought to read once I’m done.
    Have you written memoirs or something on a more personal level as opposed to all your great business books?

    1. We’re releasing my favorite 40-50 stories in a book sometime in the next few months. I think it will be called The Grey Fedora.

      1. That’s wonderful! I’ve been wanting this for quite some time, so I could share your terrific (and often very moving) stories with others. I’m hoping that this book won’t be too expensive, so I can give them as gifts this several people in my life!

  3. What a great trip down memory lane. Beside the smiles I get from reading your musings this one took me back to Mrs. Munro and my high school English Lit class. No wild dogs but the research methods and the 3 X 5 cards were a must. And I can’t agree more with the thanks to Google and all the search engine folks out there.

  4. Bravo! Your title made me click, and your narrative made me want to read more. I, too, fondly remember the magic of 3×5 cards, manual typewriters, and card catalogs, but never had to contend with wild dogs. I salute you.

    1. I guess most people didn’t have to deal with scary dogs roaming the country side, but the truth is–in Bellingham in the mid to late fifties–it was common to fall under the piercing eye of a wandering, hungry dog.

  5. Reading of your journey to the library brought back memories of many hours spent over the card catalogues! Those of use that had the experiences appreciate how we are now spoiled with the ability to look up any information in the moment, from anywhere. (We don’t even have to worry about grammar or typing mistakes either!) Thanks for sharing!

  6. I and many others adore, admire, enjoy and yes love your writing style – both these stories and your business books. Have you reached out the the C- over D+ teacher? Sent him a signed copy of one of your books? I would like to offer a thank you to him from me (and you too!)- that he didn’t diminish your gift, spark and love for writing and researching that many get to enjoy.

  7. I will have my 8 and 10 year olds read this… Maybe, just maybe, they will realize how lucky they are, as they continue to teach ME how to use the I-pad…

  8. Trying to help my 16 year old son learn how to properly research for papers has been a chore because of the volumes of information available to him online. Yes he has access to things that I would never have found in my student days, but knowing when to stop looking is important too. He unfortunately has the I need 10 references mind set, and stops there, not understanding that sometimes the first 10 aren’t necessarily the best ten.
    Great story and brought back many memories that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

  9. Delightful as usual. I am gray haired enough to remember the days if the dreaded card catalog. Somewhere along the line you learned to be a masterful writer!

  10. Thanks for making me smile as I look back and encouragement to look forward with appreciation and more openness to change.

  11. I, too, am incredibly grateful for the easy access to information afforded by the Internet (and the ease of typing on a computer, instead of a typewriter) — sometimes, it seems almost magical to me how easy it is to get the answer to almost any question online! But, unlike you, I do have some fond memories of doing research in the library (I loved participating in the “secret code society” of the Dewey Decimal System, fingering through the card catalogs, and the feel and smell of the library books) and even of those 3×5 notecards, to a certain extent. (Of course, my trips to the library involved a short bus ride or walk down 10 city blocks, not a 2-1/2 mile trek past wild dogs!)

    However, I worry a bit about kids today doing all of their research on the Internet…while it’s easier to find information online than going to the library, the odds of finding *valid* information are much higher at the library. Anyone with access to a computer can “publish” their “facts,” without any kind of vetting process whatsoever. And I’m all for learning how to cite one’s sources – I see plenty of adults in professional-type jobs who don’t even realize that they can’t just copy from something from the Internet and use it in training materials or presentations without any kind of attribution!

    As in many things in life, I think the trick is to strike a balance between what is worth maintaining from the old disciplines and what is helpful to embrace in the new.

    1. Mine own experience is that you can find unsupported material in both the library and the internet. I also take care to ensure that I’ve clicked my way down a path that takes me to original material. I’ve been shocked at how easy it is to get to the original authors. Sometimes I call them on the phone or email them. Either way, you’re right. You have to guard against unsubstantiated material.

  12. Another great read. I love your writing style – always interesting and more than just a little funny. My coworkers must wonder what I’m reading with a grin on my face.

  13. I enjoyed this because I remember these same things about writing a paper. Of course, I remember more of the aggravation than the humorous side.

    I would love for teachers to make kids complete one term paper per year the old fashion way. I think it would make them appreciate the world they live in, as well as teach them a bit about patience and perservance. Today’s kids live in a world where they expect instant gratification.

  14. I could not agree more, and thank you for sharing your thoughts! I’m 48, and I often comment to my husband that I am astounded at the ease of research now, compared to the methods of my youth. I too remember hikes in the rain, long discussions on the merits of the Dewey decimal system, developing the art of looking things up in the green Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, the dismay of missing pages or journals that could only be requested from far away places, and the joys of typing (I was terrible at estimating when I would hit the bottom of the page, especially for adding footnotes–endnotes were a revelation to me back then!).

    I also recall the fine discriminating skills one had to develop to know when to type “ibid.” vs. other formats, and the countless times I spent renumbering my endnotes because I always ended up deleting a few 3 X 5 cards or adding them in a different place. A paper was never “done” until 1-2 hours had been spent just typing up the end notes and the bibliography!

    I now feel like I have the secrets to the lost library of Alexandria. I went through an entire 3rd masters degree program using the online library–never leaving my house–with much greater access to more peer-reviewed periodicals than I could have dreamt of in my younger days. I regularly look up obscure facts on my iPhone while a passenger in a car, at a restaurant, or in my living room debating some finer point of a topic with my husband.

    Equally powerful, I look up videos on YouTube or Vimeo to find out how to put a new photography lighting kit together, or replace a light bulb in my 7 year old television; for $40 a month, on Lynda.com, I can access thousands of training videos on how to use a new software program (or the latest release of a program)

    The possibilities for learning, growing, fixing, and disseminating information to others are now endless! It is truly a type of miracle, in my mind, as there are so many things I could not have attempted at other points in life without access to the Internet, the Cloud, and all of the data people have dedicated time to uploading onto servers everywhere. And a special Google shout out belongs to Google Maps–as someone who was directionally challenged and who was not particularly adept at reading maps (if you even had a map of certain areas, in previous eras), Google Maps changed my world. I never have fear now going someplace new, whereas in my 20’s, I might avoid meeting friends somewhere I hadn’t been before, over anxiety about getting lost. And I never have to go to AAA for Trip-tic books, which I had to use to navigate moves from Ohio to Florida and Mississippi to Arizona.

    I have a staff of people under the age of 35, and I do share this perspective with them, only so they can get a glimpse of how fast technology has changed our lives, and the tremendous benefits that can exist from this kind of access. There’s a shadow side too, I know, to our information and gadgetry, but I am grateful, consciously, every day for the resources now in my grasp.

    One thing I often reflect on, though, as someone known for collecting and storing information in her head: where we place value and what we’ll pay for is shifting in relation to knowledge. It’s now about synthesis and critical thinking, as well as creativity and the ability to craft stories, so people can analyze and interpret the information in meaningful ways. My informal nickname at work is “Wiki” and I love it; I know, though, that to remain relevant, I have to emphasize my synthesis and story-telling skills and keep building on those aspects of my mental “toolkit.”

    Thanks for sharing this article, Kerry!

    1. I used to tell students who took my classes that while it was good to be able to recall certain facts and pieces of trivia, their future lie not in their ability to recall anything–computers do a much better job. Their future lies in their ability to create, to think, invent, to create theories–in short, to do something original and exciting with all of those disorganized factoids.

  15. I also remember those days as a student and as an English teacher. The mechanics of getting information has little to do with learning how to write well – other than maybe limiting the scope of a topic. Writing is just a difficult to do well now – in fact, it is proving to be even more difficult now given so much opportunity to write.

  16. Clearly everything worked out for the best – I absolutely love your writing. I always look forward to the next one. Thank you!

  17. Kerry, read your lovely post which was vivid, engaging and nostalgic. It took me to days where I had to walk a kilometer to reach a refrigerator which provided cold water and luxuries like an ice-cream. Thanks so much and keep writing

    Regards

    Gautam
    India

  18. I love this guy. I love the way you think and write. I’ll remember how great the “cloud” is everytime I curse all this useful technology

  19. Kerry is a very entertaining writer. Growing up in the same village as Kerry I wondered why he walked past the first Carnegie library and wandered downtown to the second library just to fight off the dogs. Yes we were the only town in America with two Carnegies.
    In high school Kerry was one of the smart ones and the world has rewarded him. In 1964 our town was trying to entice big ships to come and bring with them prosperity. By this time we had lost 26 of the 27 lumber mills for we at one time had lots of trees. All the English classes in the schools were given the task to write a essay as to why our town deserved these big ships. The local Chamber of Commerce big shots came and gave us the facts but I was home with the flu. My teacher Mrs. Wilson tape recorded the lecture and I too had to write the essay as this was a English assignment and part of our grade. With age the skill of spelling does not improve so my sister ( a smart one) proof read my paper, I rewrote it and turned it in only hoping to receive a passing grade.
    The next week I was called down to the high school office to have my picture put in the local rag for some nincompoop had chosen my essay as the winner of a $25 savings bond. Back then a $25 savings bond only cost $17.50 and took 25 years to mature so I cashed it in.
    Back then I am sure Kerry was a superior writer to me as he certainly is today. I am admitting to good luck and a smart sister. It took 40 years for the ships to arrive so my essay was not very convincing. The essay was sent North to be published in the Alaska newspapers. We are now the Southern terminal of the Alaska State Ferry system. Anyway Kerry. Thanks for the memories.

    1. I was not allowed to check out books from the library close to my house because I had ruined a few library books (from the closer library) while toting them home and dI idn’t have the money to buy myself back into the library.

  20. My high school papers were written on an Underwood manual portable my dad had purchased as GSA surplus. It had one of those fancy two-color ribbons you could use to type words in red by using a special key. But the, er, handwriting was already on the wall: my high school typing class had IBM Selectric typewriters.

    All the members of our high school debate team had their boxes full of 3×5 index cards, one factoid per card.

    Many years later after graduate school, I was the first person in my office to use proportionally-spaced downloadable typefaces on our HP LaserJet printer. Everyone was amazed after having been acclimatized (indoctrinated?) to Courier, the lone firmware typeface at the time. I thereafter acquired the nickname “The Fontz”.

    Remember carbon paper?

  21. Thank you, Kerry for a great read! I can relate to the library visits, but we lived in the city where the library was only a few minutes drive away and my mother always loved taking us there. I’m just in the middle of reading a great book by Walter Isaacson. His book “The Innovators” is all about how our technology we have today came into being. I too am very grateful for all of the “Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks” who formed the technology we have today. It is amazing to think that Ada Lovelace thought about how our world is today way back in the middle 19th century! I look forward to the next big thing!

  22. Me too. I’m waiting for the universal translator. Imagine talking to anyone in the world in English (or whatever your native tongue is) and having it come out as the other person’s native tongue–we’ll break down cultural walls unlike any time in history.

  23. I scrolled through the comments before commenting myself in hopes that someone would have already shared my thoughts–and there you were! Like you, I am endlessly grateful to be living in this time. I just turned 58. What amazing changes I’ve seen!

  24. Wonderful article! It is as if you reached into my mind and pulled out my same experiences. The dreaded AWK almost completely ruined the art of writing for me. I truely believed I was a terrible writer. And you completely captured the difficulty of conducting research when I was in grade school. We are truely living in amazing times.

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