Days at the Scanner

Earlier this week, I shared a Huffington Post article on my Facebook page.  The story carried some sad tidings–after 244 years, the Encyclopædia Brittanica will no longer appear in hard copy after the edition published this year.  I shared the article by email with several friends, many of them bibliophiles and curators of useless odds and ends of information.

As sorry as I am to see the Encyclopædia Brittanica fold, it also makes me wonder about the integrity of computerized and scanned records that students and researchers will see in the future.  In an earlier post, I posted a picture of John Hurt portraying Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s novel 1984, as he goes about rewriting historical records and periodicals to conform with the current party line.

My workload has been light this week, so I have been working in scanning, a job made bearable–and even fun–as long as I have audiobooks to listen to as I work.  (Yesterday, I finished The Stand, and today I began Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History.)  The job is fairly simple.  It involves stacking documents and forms into a scanner, clicking the mouse, and then making sure they scanned properly before submitting them.  Eventually, the original paper records are destroyed.

Logistically, this is the right thing to do.  Eventually, the stored hard copies would be impossible to maintain, and probably the State of Ohio (as well as other agencies–government and private sector) would constantly be scrambling for a place to store records.  Yet, computerized images and records can easily be manipulated or altered by either side in a legal battle, and there would not be a hard copy available for a comparison.

In no way am I suggesting that we eliminate microfilming or scanning paper records.  Soon after my dad died in 2000, I thought it would be fun to obtain a copy of his service record.  He served as a Remington raider (Army slang for a clerk typist) stateside from 1952 to 1954.  (He said that he occasionally considered writing to get his medals, but he never did.)  It seems likely, however, that his records were among the 80% of Army records destroyed in the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire in the St. Louis suburb of Overland.

When I’m looking up old articles online, I often try to see if I can look at a microfilm copy of the original page at the library as soon as possible, if not that very day.  As a young teenager, I was quite fascinated when I visited Dawes Memorial Library, the Marietta College library, and saw bound editions of Time and Newsweek going back to the 1920s, and learned how to thread spools of microfilm into the reader to look at The New York Times and The Marietta Times (I would sneak a peak at the comics page in the latter).  The library kept weeks of newspapers from all over Ohio, and some of the national dailies, but soon they would either put them on microfilm or throw them away.

I must admit the demise of the printed Brittanica hits me on a personal note.  During a 1987 discard sale at Ohio University’s library, Alden Library, I happily plunked down $10 for a 1947 edition.  The library was even kind enough to lend me a shelving cart to get the books down to my New South Green dormitory, and declined my offer to pay a deposit on the cart.  In addition to lying in bed reading random entries (yes, folks, I read reference books for fun), the books made excellent lap desks in a very popular class I took the next quarter.

It would also seem that supermarkets never offer encyclopedia sets for sale anymore.  When I lived in Cincinnati, Kroger offered the Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia for sale, and I, like many would-be buyers, ended up being an expert on everything from A to Argentina.  I bought Volume I for about $.12, and never kept up with buying the subsequent volumes.

One friend pointed out on Facebook that we will always need records that can withstand a power surge or a change in software.  (Whenever I’m tempted to say ’tis time to part when it comes to typewriters, I remind myself that I have yet to strike a wrong key and delete an hour’s (or month’s) worth of work, never to be seen again.  When writing his memoir Keeping Faith, Jimmy Carter deleted an entire chapter while using “my trusty word processor.”

Winston Smith writing in his diary, a scene in 1984.

I guess this is also the reason why I’ll probably never abandon keeping a handwritten diary, and why I’ll add to the stack of composition books, journals, calendars, and spiral notebooks that accumulate in my study.  I know that there is always a chance that LiveJournal’s or Blogger’s Website may one day irreparably crash, and this blog and all the hundreds of thousands of other blogs stored there, may one day disappear like a soap bubble. 

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I Still Love the March to the Mailbox

This November has been so insane that I knew better than to even try my hand at NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) this year.  We are now just over two weeks in residence in our Weinland Park duplex, and the living room (my office) still looks like a walk-in storage locker.  I have the work table set up, complete with the laptop and my 80-cent Royal Royalite manual typewriter, but the setup is not conducive to any creative writing.

Earlier this afternoon, I plunked down a little money to cater to the more anachronistic side of me.  After doing some laundry, I went to the hardware store and bought some Liquid Wrench, since the typewriter has been so long unused that it was quite sluggish when I typed some keys experimentally the other day.  (That was a glaring indictment, a Machine Age J’accuse.  If anything, I beat typewriters to death.)

I didn’t fill out a change-of-address card with the post office when we moved last month.  I changed my New Yorker subscription online, and mailed a card to The Catholic Worker‘s circulation department, and mass emailed friends of mine who send me snail mail.  Several weeks ago, I submitted a poem to The New Yorker  via email (the only way they accept them these days).  I’m wondering if I’m being a bit too audacious if I send them a card saying, “Hey, guys, if you’re planning to buy my poem, I’ve moved since I submitted it in mid-September.  Here’s the new address.”  I think I probably will mail them a card Monday.

The slogan for the 2010 Census–which I saw on T-shirts and bumper stickers everywhere, was March to the Mailbox, and it was one I liked.  I still like to “march to the mailbox.”  Yesterday, I bought a set of MP3s from The Radio Lady in Orange County, California, and thought about ordering online with my debit card.  Instead, I printed out her order form and mailed a money order.  My disks will probably be several days later than normal, but I still liked the action of mailing the money order to her.

The above YouTube video is an excerpt from a 1980 made-for-TV movie entitled Gideon’s Trumpet, the true story of a semi-literate Florida convict in 1961 who argued that the Constitution entitled him to legal representation if he was unable to afford it himself.  He fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and emerged victoriously, defended by future Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas.

Fast forward to about 5:15 in the clip.  The movie itself is not what you would call action-packed.  Gideon was accused of breaking into a pool hall and stealing wine from the bar and change from the cigarette machine–nothing that would make this a Dirty Harry-type picture.  So, the most dramatic moment in the picture comes when Gideon (played by Henry Fonda) actually sends his petition to the Supreme Court.  Mawkish as it may be, I’m still stirred when his fellow convict asks to hold and look at the petition for a second, and then I choke up a little when the music swells and Gideon drops that fat envelope into the outgoing mail slot.

I had a similar experience and feeling when I was at Ohio University.  I  spent many an evening in the computer lab at Alden Library, furiously typing away on an IBM Personal Computer, writing and re-writing the first few chapters of a long moribund novel, printing it out on the laser printer, and preparing it for mailing.  I was applying for the Bennett Fellowship, a writing fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy in New England.  (I would be given room and board on the school’s campus, plus a modest stipend.  In exchange, I would have to finish a novel by the end of June and occasionally teach some writing classes to some bored, spoiled little East Coast WASP kids.)

When I finally checked and rechecked the finished product with my unrelenting typesetter’s eye and deemed it was ready to go, I had a large stamped envelope ready, all set to receive the manuscript.  I printed it for the last time, put the stack of pages into the envelope, sealed it, and I was walking out of Alden Library to the mailbox by The Oasis.  That was where I saw my friend Jennifer, who was coming back from a meeting with her Honors Tutorial adviser.  It was about two days before the must-be-postmarked-by date for applying for the fellowship, so she had begun to doubt whether I was serious about applying.

Jennifer’s skepticism vanished when I held up the envelope.  “Look!”  I said.  Her eyebrows raised, betraying how pleasantly surprised she was.  There was my return address for my Scott Quad dorm, the addressee was indeed the Bennett Fellowship Committee at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H.  I just felt a sense of relief at having this self-imposed burden lifted from my shoulders.  I had raced the calendar, and I had won, if only barely.  I had been more conscientious and more driven about this than I had been about my schoolwork.

Yet, her enthusiasm rivaled mine.  I thought she was handing the envelope back to me, but she held onto the corner she had gripped to read the address.  For a second, there was tension, like two kindergarteners about to fight over the same toy.  She wouldn’t let go.  Finally, she pulled open the mailbox door.

I got it then.  Gingerly, we both moved it toward the opening, and, with an unspoken signal passing between us, let it go at the same time.  The lid closed, and I heard the muffled thud! of the manuscript as it landed in the square bucket (“flat box”, I learned later, was the correct name) inside.  Superstitiously, I gave the mailbox lid an extra flip, making sure it was in there.

“Now, you are not to talk about this until you hear from them.”  It was just before Thanksgiving, and Phillips Exeter said there would be a decision sometime in February.  I heeded her words.  For the first few days after mailing the project, I reverted back to my childhood days of breathlessly checking my mailbox, just like I did after mailing a batch of proof-of-purchase stickers to Kellogg’s headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan for a new toy.

I did not get the fellowship, although it was late in February when the thumbs-down letter arrived.  I was able to keep hope alive for much of Christmas break and into the new year.  It was much better than my rejection from Esquire the previous summer.  My information from Writer’s Market told me there would be a reply in 10 weeks from Esquire‘s short story editors.  So, when my short story came back in its return envelope less than three weeks later, I felt like I was getting it back on the tines of a pitchfork.  (At the same time, Playboy had kept another short story longer than usual, which made me think that the editors were squabbling about how huge a check to cut me, since the story was so magnificent.)

My first real job was as church secretary at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, where I was a member.  One of my tasks was typing (and eventually editing) The Confluence, the twice-monthly newsletter.  Typing the newsletter was meticulous work, since we still used mimeograph stencils.  Running off the finished product on the hand-cranked mimeograph machine was a breeze, and addressing it and taking it to the Marietta post office was pure tedium.  The only movie that the certified lunatic Mel Gibson ever made that I enjoyed was Conspiracy Theory, which I’m sure is far superior than his snuff film disguised as Christian devotion, The Passion of the Christ.  My favorite scene in the movie is when the hero, Jerry Fletcher, is alone in his cluttered Greenwich Village apartment typing up his little newsletter, photocopying it, and then driving around Manhattan dropping each copy into a different mailbox, and trying to be so nonchalant about it that he inevitably calls attention to himself.  It brought me back to the days when preparing the newsletter–from collecting information to bringing it to the service window at the post office–was such a project that I was weary of the publication by the time my copy arrived.

So, once I apply the Liquid Wrench to the recalcitrant carriage of my typewriter, I’ll have one less excuse to not be writing.