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For better or worse, all of the information in the world is at our fingertips and nearly any question can be answered within seconds. Whether you want to learn how to cook the perfect medium-rare steak or find spoilers to your favorite television series, there will most likely be millions of search results waiting for you whenever you want and wherever you are. 

But this age of global connectivity and seemingly infinite endless information has only been around for a handful of years. It wasn’t long ago that the internet didn’t exist. Now, every site is vying for attention—marketing tactics like search engine optimization bring the most relevant information front and center to searchers. But how did people find information before the internet served up research within milliseconds? 


Education in the Age of Enlightenment


Finding information in the 18th century looked a lot different than today. Before the Enlightenment era throughout the 1700s, education was only available to those of a specific social background and gender, scholars, religious orders, doctors, and lawyers. But as the scientific revolution evolved during this age, the idea that knowledge should be available to everyone spread across the western world. 


The Golden Age of Libraries


During this period, changes in beliefs around access to information helped bring about the growth of public cultural institutions like museums and libraries. The idea that libraries should be open to the public wasn’t commonplace until the 1700s. And while many libraries during this time still restricted access to non-scholars and upper-class men, the 1700s set the foundation for the public library system we enjoy today.


Even though there were few out there, public libraries during this time were funded by the state and free to access. Since the price of books was extremely high, libraries were the only place average people could study and educate themselves. This would eventually help narrow the educational gap between the wealthier class and the lower class. 


Another way people found information and educated themselves during the 18th century was through social gatherings. Preceding the French Revolution, educated French men and women would gather in what they called “salons”. During a salon, they would talk, teach each other about emerging philosophies, and debate social and political issues. These types of intellectual exchanges occurred throughout Europe and had a large impact on the social unrest that was also occurring across the western world during this era. 


Print Newspapers


Even though the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 made publishing books and manuscripts less labor-intensive than having to hand copy everything, it wasn't until the early 1600s that the first newspapers started popping up across Europe. By the start of the 18th century, daily newspapers started popping up, with the first successful daily paper being published in Britain in 1702. 


The first magazine—The Gentleman's Magazine— was also published in 1731. It’s estimated that 337,000 different book titles were printed throughout the 18th century. And by 1785, there were around 124 printers in London, marking a massive increase in information available to the public. 


This period also marked a change in the type of books that were being published. Before the enlightenment, around 50 percent of books published were religious books. But by the end of the 1700s, that number dropped to around 10 percent. Almanacs, scientific literature, and contemporary literature became the books of choice for the growing literate population. 


Modern Research 


Back in the 18th century, finding the answer to a question depended entirely on what books, papers, or periodicals were available in your geographic area. There might be a library in your area, but you could only get in with special permission. Newspapers were spreading, but any information from different parts of the world may be well out-of-date by the time it reaches the publisher. And home libraries were only available to wealthy households, making education opportunities extremely limited to the lower class households. 


Today, if you’re doing research—or simply have a random question, you can get some type of answer within seconds. It may not be the most accurate or most helpful answer, but it’s still out there for people no matter the searcher’s occupation, location, or social status.