I'm interested in the academic history of creating a bibliographic reference list. The time period is early 1990s. I want to understand how former researchers have done their writing.


25 years ago in the year 1993 scientific publishing was not done with Internet but somehow else. From the history lesson it is known, that the first electronic OPAC systems were invented and they were used in many university libraries. The OPAC catalog didn't contain the fulltext article but only the bibliographic references, for example author, title and year. The technology behind the early OPAC system was perhaps a desktop IBM PC, but I'm not sure. It is also possible that no electronic OPAC was available but only the good old card based catalog. In any case, the cards were not handwritten but with a typewriter, so the user of the library were able to find the correct book in a short amount of time.


After the short introduction for explaining the general environment in the early 1990s there are some open question which I wasn't able to answer alone with literature research. So perhaps somebody has a personal experience and knows the details. The problem is, how the researcher can write his manuscript with a mix of a card based catalog and an early digital OPAC. The problem with the OPAC in that time was, that no copy & paste was possible. Suppose, I've found an interesting title on the screen, whats next? Should I write down the bibliographic reference direct in the manuscript or can I send the information to somebody else? A similar problem is given with the card catalog. Suppose, the researcher found an interesting looking entry. Probably it was not allowed to take the card out of the catalog and insert it in the own bibliographic references, so how has the researcher in that area solved the problem?

The next question is the sorting of the bibliographic references. Suppose, somebody has written down all the entries and want to insert a new entry alphabetically. What is the best practice method for doing so?

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    I speculate that the answer to all your questions is "manually".
    – xLeitix
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 15:30
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    BiBTeX was initially released in 1985... Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 15:47
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    And before BiB TeX some of us had written straight TeX macros to do it...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 17:41
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    From your questions, you seem to consider the 1990s a kind of mythological era where (former?!) researchers used to perform arcane rites. But let me set this straight: if we couldn't use the cut & paste function, we would simply sit at the desk with pencil and paper and copy down whatever information we needed to copy. And, yes, in the 1990s we had LaTeX, BibTeX, drawing tools, CAD tools, symbolic and numerical tools, etc. So, it wasn't exactly the stone age. Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 18:07
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    how the researcher can write his manuscript with a mix of a card based catalog and an early digital OPAC --- My Ph.D. thesis had a bibliography of about 1000 items, and I simply typed them in. But LaTeX was available, so alphabetically inserting items wasn't an issue. Some of the references were handwritten on paper before I went to the "math graduate student computer terminal room" for writing, but most were photocopies. with holes punched in, that were inserted in the numerous loose leaf notebooks I had of papers, and I just typed the information in from the paper. (continued) Commented May 6, 2018 at 9:47

2 Answers 2


Oh my. We are quite a history-less field, aren't we, in computing? I programmed an OPAC system in the 1980s and we were not the first by any means. What you mean by "bibliographic information" is called metadata. There were many different systems (MARC - Machine-readable Catalogue) around. We argued about things like having multiple of the same tag for all the different authors or having different tags so we could model the order of the authors. In Germany the art of cataloging literature goes back more than a century. There is the Regeln für die alphabetische Katalogisierung (RAK) that was put forth in the 70s to get away from that horrible Preußischen Instruktion used since 1899 or so.

We used index cards for keeping track of references in our own publications. We used pen and pencil to write on the cards, or even typed them up on a typewriter. The cards were very easy to sort (and re-sort), so the last thing you did was type up the reference list. Or you used BibTeX, if you had access to a machine that could run it. There were lots of computers before the IBM PC, they just weren't personal computers. If you didn't have access to a computer, you used a typewriter and lots of Tipp-Ex. Or you ended up retyping every page when the number of errors got to be too many.

I suggest reading up on the history of library catalogues (VOX will point you to a book in English on the subject) and then about OPACS if you want to look a bit deeper into the history. But you need to go back more than 25 years.

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    The typical incomprehension of "old times" among 20-somethings is hilarious. In various situations, I do manage to provoke my (math, in the U.S.) grad students... often in response to complaints that something (computer/internet-related) is "down" or "not reliable"... by recalling the days when there was no wifi, no cellular phone system, no internet, and long-distance phone calls could easily break one's budget. Preprints had to be sent by physical mail... "Card catalogues"! "Index cards". Typewriter font? :) Commented May 5, 2018 at 21:30
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    Remember when a Citation Index was an actual index you had to page through? :-)
    – aeismail
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 21:38
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    @aeismail, and nothing was "searchable" ... :) Commented May 5, 2018 at 21:39
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    "Back in the old days, we had to alphabetize things BY HAND..." :) Commented May 5, 2018 at 21:40

Consonant with many of the comments and Debora Weber-Wuff's answer, you may find a goldmine in Umberto Eco's How to Write a Thesis from 1977. Not only does it explain index cards, but it also factors in what books are available at the library. (The last time I mentioned this book, Massimo Ortolano confirmed that it is an Italian standard resource.)

First published in English in 2015, the guide is even advertised for the throwback factor, on the "overview" page by the MIT Press:

Of course, there was no Internet in 1977, but Eco's index card research system offers important lessons about critical thinking and information curating for students of today who may be burdened by Big Data.

For what it's worth, this does sound like an interesting technological transition time period to study, particularly if you are able to figure out who was more likely to have access to newer technologies and compare their workflow/productivity to people without. You may also find that some learned societies' journals or newsletters from the time have editorials or columns that explain newfangled bibliographic tools to their readers. That is, if you can muddle your way through the archaic language you are likely to encounter (like "synergy" and "sea change" and "dynamic" and "World Wide Web").

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