Believe it or not, there was life before that search engine unlocked the key to everything we needed to know - and plenty more we didn't.

Google - the world's biggest search engine - has just turned 20.

The gateway for more than a trillion searches worldwide a year, it has changed the world of its users, among them millions doing jobs where Google has become a vital tool.

But answers have not always been a few taps away.

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Cherie Howie hears from some of those who remember life before Google.

The lawyer

Bell Gully partner Alan Ringwood, pictured in the firm's law library in the mid-1980s. The library was a place where much time was spent before the arrival of Google. Photo / Supplied
Bell Gully partner Alan Ringwood, pictured in the firm's law library in the mid-1980s. The library was a place where much time was spent before the arrival of Google. Photo / Supplied

Alan Ringwood is a partner and specialist litigator at Bell Gully. He has been practising law 35 years.

Life before Google is hard to remember, but it definitely involved more field trips.

The world was not at your fingertips. The world was out there, in the actual world, and all the information you needed was stored in hard copy form.

This meant that there were trips to the university library, to check the definitions - in every single dictionary they held - for the word you needed to construe in a very particular way.

There were whole days spent in the Law Society library, while it rained outside, trying to find any kind of obscure authority for some arcane point of law that you knew must have been judicially considered somehow, somewhere, sometime.

There were trips to the Auckland Public Library to look at microfiche records of historical newspaper articles to do with something or other.

And – if that could be imagined – there were even more exciting trips.

There was an afternoon at the London Bar, upstairs on the corner of Queen and Wellesley, where they had more than 100 beers and you could check all the labels for any that contained a depiction of a lion, for a passing off dispute.

And then buy bottles of all the ones that did.

There were trips to bottle stores all across the city to check the labels on bottles of whisky for similar reasons.

These sorts of field trips are still sometimes necessary (or we can convince ourselves that they are); but pre-Google there was simply no alternative.

Then there was the waiting for information.

Ordering a text book from some other library, waiting a week, and hoping that it would be useful when it arrived. This all meant that the process of giving legal advice had a very different rhythm, and clients seemed naturally to understand that.

In particular (in case any are listening) they did not expect the advice that very same day; or even necessarily that week.

So you not only had more time to research it, you also had more time to think about it, and you could put it aside to do something else in the meantime if you liked, and come back to it after reflection, and when it was done you posted it, and you might not get asked to clarify it for another week or two.

Life before Google was a lot less convenient. But it certainly was not all bad.

The academic

Professor Deborah Levy, University of Auckland Business School property HOD, with her son Sam in 1990. She was writing her masters on an Apple Mac. For the Life before Google spread. Photo / Supplied
Professor Deborah Levy, University of Auckland Business School property HOD, with her son Sam in 1990. She was writing her masters on an Apple Mac. For the Life before Google spread. Photo / Supplied
Professor Deborah Levy, head of Property at the University of Auckland Business School. Photo / Supplied.
Professor Deborah Levy, head of Property at the University of Auckland Business School. Photo / Supplied.

Professor Deborah Levy is head of the property department at University of Auckland's business school.

Research before Google revolved around going to the library – it was so manual and time intensive.

You would look up a journal article, take notes by hand or photocopy it (and if you didn't read it fast enough the print would start to rub off!).

Books played a much bigger role – you would look them up in the old wooden catalogue drawers with their index cards, and track back through the list of references or bibliography to other books and articles.

I have a photo of me finishing my Masters on my Apple Mac in 1990, with my baby boy, Sam, on my back.

I remember we had to use floppy disks to transfer information between computers – no email or memory sticks back then.

Google and the digital age has made it both easier and harder to be an academic researcher.

Easier because you can put in a few keywords and Google Scholar will instantly bring up maybe 10 different articles, on different aspects of the topic and from different disciplines, so you get a much broader, up-to-the-moment overview.

But that can work against you – it means there's nowhere to hide.

It's not unusual to submit an article to a journal and have a reviewer come back to you with this obscure article that they've Googled and that you haven't covered, and then you have to explain why it's not relevant.

You have to be that much more explicit about the specific scope of your work.

It has also changed the nature of the mental work.

Gone is that image of the academic sitting in the sun reading a book and pondering on it; now you have to scan it and get onto the next thing.

You do a lot more skimming and have to very quickly assess the quality and relevance of material – there's a huge emphasis on keeping up, keeping across things.

You have to work harder to ring-fence time for letting ideas percolate and really developing your arguments.

The journalist

Auckland Star journalist Tony Potter poses with three women promoting Hawaii on a P & O cruise ship in Auckland in 1964. Reporters climbed a rope ladder to board arriving ships. Photo / Supplied
Auckland Star journalist Tony Potter poses with three women promoting Hawaii on a P & O cruise ship in Auckland in 1964. Reporters climbed a rope ladder to board arriving ships. Photo / Supplied

Tony Potter has been a journalist since 1955. He worked on London's Fleet St, then the Auckland Star and several other Auckland newspapers.

"Grandpa," asked Ryan, 7, "was there life before Google?"

Despite an urge to harrumph "Go away and Google it", (he's very savvy on a computer) he had a good point; what was there before Google?

In the old days, when computers had now forgotten names like L.C. Smith and Underwood (and were much noisier), when newspapermen – it was mostly men – were expected to go out of the office and interview people called "contacts", there were other avenues of information.

Newspapers had things called libraries, where no such new-fangled nonsense as equal employment opportunities applied.

To be a librarian you had to be a woman. They were brilliant, they could find clippings about things you never knew existed.

But if it was a case of actually dragging down a bound volume of newspapers, usually collated in three-month collections, you did it yourself.

Those things weighed a ton and no self-respecting librarian was going to get it down for you.

Many reporters would spend hours in the library, although I suspect many were trying to hide away from the chief reporter or news editor, or trying to chat up the newest recruit.

Not all lady librarians were chosen for their brains.

For further reference, there was the Auckland Central Library and the US Consulate's library in Shortland St, staffed by a wonderful woman who most certainly was chosen for her brains.

They also had telephone directories for each state and the latest issues of Sports Illustrated and the New York Times.

But as some bloke will now tell you, the latter publication is all fake news.

Auckland University was brimming with information, freely supplied, often by professors with witty throw-away lines.

A chap by the name of Mr Williams could usually find an expert on Middle Eastern Affairs, sex habits of ex-US Presidents or differences between Lancashire and Yorkshire humour to call you back before deadline.

Finally, there was the contact book, beloved of old farts like me, usually written in code so other ambitious swine couldn't filch information, with a list of people who knew things.

Need an expert on the Beatles? Keith Quinn was your man (probably still is). The National Anthem? Get me Max Cryer.

I even had a cricket expert who claimed to know, in order, each scoring shot of Wally Hammond's 336 at Eden Park in 1932 against New Zealand.

Please don't laugh, one day it might be needed. Although, it's almost definitely on Google.

You could look it up, he harrumphed.

The scientist and academic

Dr Alison Campbell is an associate dean, and a senior lecturer, in biological sciences, at the University of Waikato. She is pictured in the field in her youth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Alison Campbell is an associate dean, and a senior lecturer, in biological sciences, at the University of Waikato. She is pictured in the field in her youth. Photo / Supplied

Dr Alison Campbell is an associate dean, and a senior lecturer in biological sciences, at the University of Waikato.

My life as a researcher before Google?

Well, it began even before the internet was really a thing.

It saw me spending a LOT of time in the actual (as opposed to virtual) University Library.

Anyone doing research way back then needed to access hard-copy books and journals, and use great thick volumes of catalogues (rather than the wonderful on-line databases available to us today).

Of course, the library didn't carry every journal or text that might be relevant, which meant that we also needed to fill in interloan requests that were posted or faxed off to other institutions.

And in due course the book or paper we were after would turn up - in the post.

At this point I should add that in this far-off time at the start of my career, personal computers were also Not A Thing.

So my colleagues and I would write our notes and articles in longhand (with a fountain pen, in my case!) and get them typed up.

Similarly edits were in pen(cil) on paper – a far cry from today's Office toolkit and the joys of on-line editing.

And when out in the field, paper maps – and the skills to read them – were indispensable.

Our ability today to use Google maps is a godsend – as much for navigating the perils of the Auckland rush-hour en route to a meeting, as for using GIS to find the precise location of a sample site.

So, Google and the technologies behind it has become a useful academic tool.

For those of us who are also teachers, it's a mixed blessing – there is so much content, of hugely-variable quality and validity, and so it's essential to help students learn how to navigate that morass of information successfully.

And I do wonder how we'd manage if google (and the internet) were to disappear overnight.

The librarian

Bruce Ringer, pictured working as a librarian before Google. Public requests ranged from addresses to car manuals and education statistics. Photo / Supplied
Bruce Ringer, pictured working as a librarian before Google. Public requests ranged from addresses to car manuals and education statistics. Photo / Supplied
Auckland Libraries research team leader Bruce Ringer. Photo / Avolyn Diedricks
Auckland Libraries research team leader Bruce Ringer. Photo / Avolyn Diedricks

Bruce Ringer is a research team leader at Auckland Libraries

The day Google was founded, 4 September 1998, I knew nothing about it.

I was one of two reference librarians on duty at Manukau Libraries, and my work diary shows that among other duties we responded to 18 inquiries by telephone and 14 in person.

We had no external emails that day but made considerable use of fax.

A lot of the job involved putting people in touch with books – on that day we provided 53 books from our stacks on request and sent or received 17 interloan requests for books and periodical articles from other libraries in New Zealand.

Items came and went by post or courier.

Inquiries ranged from simple to complex.

They included requests for addresses, car manuals and education statistics – we provided information on topics from the Great Depression to Chinese settlement in New Zealand and jurisprudence and criminal law.

We'd changed over from microfiche in 1986 and abandoned card catalogues sometime before that.

By 1998 in-house catalogue searches were automated, with access to a range of proprietary databases.

Otherwise, answering inquiries usually involved checking printed sources: encyclopedias, indexes, directories, bibliographies. Many of these were bulky volumes – so librarians needed strong wrists in those days.

Here's a confession: I'm a technophobe and a slow adopter.

Working mostly with books suited me. A few years post-Google, it gave me great satisfaction to win a 'reference race' answering questions using only print resources against a colleague using only the internet.

That wouldn't be possible now.

To my recollection, Google became inescapably useful for librarians in about 2005 and types of enquiry have changed dramatically since.

Nobody comes to a library to look at medical encyclopedias or textbooks anymore; they find their own health information (or misinformation) on Google instead.

But there remains a vast universe of information outside Google.

To explore it I still use skills and knowledge picked up 20 or even 30 years ago.

But I use new skills as well – today, like my colleagues; I'm more into info-navigation, interpretation, packaging, preservation and creation than leafing through bibliographies, photocopying articles and providing gobbets of fact.

But pre-Google or post-Google, I'm still in the business of adding value to peoples' lives and (hopefully) finding things no one else can find.