Posted May 7, 2007
In the old days to find out where someone lived, how much they paid for their house, or whether or not they had any speeding tickets, you had to do it the old-fashioned way- by going to a county office, or to the courthouse, and search the public records by hand. If you were lucky a kind clerk would take pity on you, help you find what you needed, and maybe even let you use the copy machine free of charge. Today, all of this information is just a mouse click away and can be obtained in the privacy of your cubicle.
For reporters this can be a good thing. I’ve been in the business long enough to remember the days before Switchboard and Google. In my early years as a journalist before the Web became part of our daily vocabulary the only way to find someone was to hang out at the local general store and ask folks if they knew where Buddy might be staying these days. Getting a phone number was almost impossible if the person was unlisted, or had a common name, but if we could just pin him down to a neighborhood we would go knock on doors. It amazes me to this day how much more likely people are to talk if you show up at their door in person than if you call them or e-mail them. I used to take great pride in spending hours looking for someone and then finally knocking on that one right door.
Don’t even get me started on how we found places without Mapquest, GPS systems, or cell phones. We had maps that folded and weren’t afraid to ask for directions. I can’t tell you how many times my directions contained lines from farmers and clerks at mom-and-pop stores like: the second paved road to the right or just past what used to be old man Johnson’s farmhouse (but it’s gone now, it burned down 20 years ago). But somehow between our AAA maps, and the genuine kindness of strangers, we were able to find what we were looking for. Come on, I’ll ride you down there, follow me, I’ve got time- more than a few people said to me over the years.
Doing a real life public records search back then involved real knowledge- not a high-speed Internet connection. I grew up in what is probably the last generation of kids to learn the Dewey Decimal system of looking up books in the library. This clearly prepared me for what I would face in my early years as a journalist. Learning how to find court records, real estate records, marriage licenses, you name it, is like learning a foreign language one painful syllable at a time.
Today, I admit that I take the easy way out just like everyone else. I Google. I Switchboard. I Mapquest. I would be a fool not to take advantage of the tools that can aid me in doing my work more efficiently. But I sure am glad that I know how to survive the old-fashioned way, because if we ever have a blackout in cyberspace I’ll know where to go and how to get there.