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.