During library research my friend and I would exclaim, “To the microfiche!” Visions of ourselves as superheroes climbing into their technology, our voices louder than the ex-military librarian preferred, we’d trundle to the back of the room and rifle through metal filing cabinets full of translucent blue plastic pages. The topic that day, and many others, was the fabled railroad that ostensibly forged Canadian unity. A blasé topic, owing to it’s repetition every semester but, buoyed by exuberance that sometimes only a pop culture reference can provide, we’d delve into the fantasy realm of history.
The machine itself was a big metal lug; we’d feed microfiche sheets into one end where they were illuminated from below by a light. Then we manually scrolled the plastic past the light using a dial I much later associated with the arm on a casino’s one-armed bandit. Placing our heads over the lighted area we’d read the manuscripts and news reports from days of yore. Sometimes nuggets of information would emerge. Over a quarter century later I don’t recall exactly what we discovered on that day but an example from the period was of prairie farmers buying the rights to short tracks of train line and starting their own railway. What fun, almost like a comic book, to own your own railway!
“He estimates that the same 50 miles of track his co-op now operates would have cost Canadian Pacific and Canadian National $1 million (Canadian; US$765,500) annually. His own costs? About $500,000.
There are eight Canadian short lines, compared with 500 in the United States … The majority of funds used by the short-line railroads as well as the larger ones come from the federal government. Cutting the subsidy might pinch the big railroads, but would likely shutdown the highly subsidized Southern Railways” (Clayton, online).
A common source for material was the Christian science monitor; in our internet days at AU we can still locate tidbits and morsels for our course material from their online site. While our sources were as timeless as the literally plastic medium of the microfiche sheets, and seemed pretty cut and dried and just the facts ma’am, the internet today is famously a morass of possibilities and contradictions.
Sanctions, Tariffs, History Textbooks Not So Out of Date
Another key high school social studies topic, the use of tariffs and sanctions in trade wars and political snafus, is to this day familiar to students young and old. For instance, Yahoo News notes that recent punitive economic action against Russia only briefly staggered their currency, the ruble.
“The actions are largely toothless if foreigners keep guzzling Russian oil and natural gas— supporting the ruble by stocking Putin’s coffers. Even as Russia remains mostly cut off otherwise from the global economy, Bloomberg Economics expects the country will earn nearly $321 billion from energy exports this year, up more than a third from 2021…this gives Russia a current-account surplus—economics jargon for exporting more than you import, which tends to lift a country’s currency—and undermines the attempt to pummel Russia with sanctions” (Maki, online).
Basically, if you have something the world wants to buy, neither hell nor war nor high water will diminish the value of your goods. It’s a bit like being an adult student and majoring in business; if we get our diploma we’ll get a serviceable job if not the fulfillment of a happy life. One former Wall Street Journal claims that the decline of globalization and access to cheap labour in impoverished regions from recent increases in tariffs and sanctions in impoverished regions can only benefit workers in our countries.
“Russia is likely to demand ruble payments not only for natural gas sent to Europe but also for oil and food commodities, such as wheat and corn. This will increase global demand for the ruble. In fact, it will strengthen both the hands of Russian financial institutions and, ultimately, Putin’s government. Those buying commodities in rubles will have to turn to Russian banks for financing (as Russian bank loans are the source of rubles) and will seek to export more to Russia to obtain rubles. This will create an alternative to the eurodollar system for countries that either must be–or decide to be–closer to Russia and away from what we’re calling the West again” (Carney, online).
History proceeds apace, although the microfiche technique hasn’t really changed and a quick search reveals that many university libraries still have and use their microfiche. Knowledge retrieval is still about going to a source and thumbing through options. Likewise, the world is at our fingertips as distance students. And fortunately, although harmed by assorted forms of deplatforming by Big Tech, the internet still provides a broader base of information and interpretation than the microfiche ever did. But if history goes off the rails we may wish we had access to the real McCoy, those raw tangible microfiche sheets along, of course, with actual paper books.
There’s no substitute for the genuine article in hand, as medieval scholars discovered when works by Aristotle and others were finally available again thanks to the Islamic world preserving them (Wichmann, online). However, as we also learned in the 9th Grade as minnow-minded pupils, the conditions for big wars were partly forged by increased nationalist competition for resources. But hasn’t the world always been that way? Just as our high school textbooks in the 90s asserted, economic conflict forces countries to adapt and hopefully not end up in World War. When global trade becomes dicey, import substitution, say where some brie is made in Canada and would suffice as a lesser but fine cheese, creates new domestic markets. Our country already famously defends dairy products from American intrusion to such an extent that it’s rare to see a US milk product anywhere but on the shelves of our good friends, the big box stores.
We’re All Super and Heroic at AU
Be it internet search engines, or manual microfiche adventures, history and knowledge have changed far less than we might imagine. Wisdom and learning come down to reading and researching and demonstrating our knowledge by writing about it. There’s never been a shortcut to good study habits and Athabasca is renowned for enabling us to bring an excellent university education home with us while providing the means to achieve unique skills of time management and personal motivation. Class is never quite done, at AU, and as stressful as that can be it also means that the wonderful AU library is always open. Check it out, with your superhero wagon and cloak in tow!