Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


The deluge and the drought

Forget the burning of the library of Alexandria. Right now, we’re losing more information than ever in history, and just as Caesar’s  setting fire to antiquity’s greatest repository of knowledge was accidental, today’s loss is equally unintentional. As a couple of readers have noted here recently, we’re losing art and information to the forward march of technology.

Some examples from my own warehouses of art and information:

  • I can’t play my LPs or singles. My wife and I  haven’t had a turntable since at least 1996, when we bought this house. The only reason we had one at the previous house was that my theatre company had an extra one that we used at home to record cues. How many of us have turntables any more? And no, not all of the records that I still have are available on CD, and some never will be. I have the limited edition Deutsche Grammophone boxed set of Roxy Music’s albums (from back when such things had to be ordered through the mail, by sending a letter with a check). The original LP version of the album Manifesto has a wonderful (original) version of “Angel Eyes” that was subsequently remixed into what I’ll call “the hideous disco version” by Bryan Ferry. All subsequent versions of this album include the Hideous Disco Version. I haven’t heard the original version (or, as I like to call it, “the real version”) in almost 15 years. Except I can still hear it in my head.
  • I have dozens of cassette tapes that play almost nowhere:  not in my car, not on a computer, not on my iPhone, etc. etc. So in essence, they’ve lost their primary advance:  portability. For most of these, that’s not a problem (the ones I cared about I’ve now got in digital files or on CD). But there are dozens that I recorded myself — of my band, or of discussions with various writers and interview subjects.
  • Recently I took a hard look at the 120 or so square 3.25″ hard computer disks in my home office closet. They were formatted for my Apple IIGS, which I used until 1992 when I got my first Mac. I wrote on that computer for five very industrious years — probably 10 or 15 plays, most of them full-length, innumerable essays, short stories, poems, failed novels, detritus, and utter drivel. I hope it’s all printed out and in my files, because I pitched the disks. No way to read them.
  • Should I even go into the hundreds of thousands of emails I’ve sent and received, all of them deleted? God knows I’m not saying I should have printed them out and filed them, but surely somewhere in all that there were virtual letters I would have liked to keep for reference in my dotage. As I’ve switched from one email client to another — from the Claris version of Mail to Microsoft Entourage to the Apple version of Mail — I’ve lost one archive after another of this correspondence.
  • Same thing with my calendars. I can tell you what I did day to day in the 90’s because I used leather daybooks. My son pointed out to me that the iPhone deletes appointments older than 3 months. (To save memory, no doubt.) They get backed up onto the computer you sync with — but maybe that’ll change too.

I could go on in this vein — and discuss Betamax tapes and VHS tapes and so forth. But let’s talk about those things we never thought we’d lose:  books. One of this blog’s correspondents, my friend the theatre producer Isabel Storey, points out that the shelf life of our archives is geting shorter and shorter:

Each progression of the way we record words seems to make them less permanent. We still have stone tablets dating back thousands of years…paper lasts at least a few hundred…but words stored in electronic devices – do they even really exist anywhere – and will anyone ever remember, find them, even tomorrow?

It’s not just words. (Hence my laundry list above.) But what happens when in our zeal to replace the printed word with the electronic version we toss out too much collective wisdom? I’m referring to this piece in The New Yorker from 1996 concerning Nicholson Baker’s battle with a library that was destroying its card catalog — and its books! — to set up electronic versions. Here’s the abstract of that piece, which has stuck with me all these years:

Baker received an e-mail from a librarian following the move inviting him to “save” the card catalogue. Having ignored an inquiry from the Rochester library, Baker agreed, and made a formal request to inspect the card catalogue. It was denied by Kenneth E. Dowlin, the City Librarian. Baker sued for legal access (Baker v. San Francisco Public Library). He found that there were more books in the cards than in the new on-line catalogue, and realized that San Francisco is a case study of what can happen when telecommunications enthusiasts take over big old research libraries and attempt to remake them, with corporate help, as showplaces for information technology. The S.F.P.L. is now essentially broke, and relies on corporate benefactors. It has sent more than two hundred thousand books to landfills — many of them old, hard to find, out of print, and valuable. The New Main (library)’s shelf space is inadequate. “Weeding” takes place in all libraries in moderation, but the San Francisco librarians had to do it in a sweeping, indiscriminate fashion. The Old Main library has a Discard Room where workers from the Department of Public Works would pick up books to load their trucks. Baker found last copies of old books there. Since January, the book-dumping has ceased, following an expose in the San Francisco Chronicle. Now there are giveaways to the public and to charity. Dowlin will run for president of the American Library Association next year. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, Dowlin combined departments. Many books were moved to an abandoned building, and damaged. D.P.W. trucks took loads from the library several times a week. Dowlin obtained a large grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for repairs and a new computer system. In 1992, the library signed a multimillion-dollar agreement with Digital Equipment and put its catalogue on-line. In the sixties, City Librarian William Holman amassed books with the ambition of making the S.F.P.L. a high-level research library. Subsequent librarians built on this until Dowlin: “S.F.P.L. is a public library, not a research facility.” He introduced a program of “levelled access,” offering current material supplemented by “focus collections.” In December 1989, William Ramirez, then Chief of the Main Library, wrote a memo objecting to the foreseen change “from a strong reference, research resource and service center to an undistinguished ‘popular library.'” Many of Dowlin’s employees have resisted the change, protecting books by hiding or falsely stamping them. The new book return system damages books, and reshelving is slow. Last May, Baker presented his charges at the invitation of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Librarians’ Guild. In July, a letter from representatives of fund-raising affinity groups went out to every member of the library and staff, attacking Baker for using Holocaust references in his speech. In August, Baker, a historian and two librarians measured the shelves of the Old Main. High preliminary figures were leaked to the press, printed and then retracted. Kathy Page admitted that storage capacity in the New Main was inadequate. Dowlin attacked Baker in the press and called his writing “crap.” The library once kept a “Withdrawal Register,” but there is no record of books discarded or destroyed since 1987. There is a computer file entitled “Purge of Items Declared Withdrawn,” which shows troubling losses. Baker was told that there is “really no need to keep a history” of books that are gone.

Almost 15 years later, this is still painful to read. If something with all the commercial appeal of The Traveling Wilburys’ first CD could go out of print — which it was for almost 10 years, despite four top-ten singles and nine million albums sold in the U.S. and Canada– what chance does a book have of ever reappearing? Yes, books have gone out of print since books were invente, but they weren’t blown aside by the gale force of technology.

For all the wonders of the age of digitization– of which I am an acolyte, from which I make my living, via which I am now sharing this with you — it has carried with it twin unforeseen curses:  the deluge and the drought. The deluge has swamped us with so much information that we now cannot contain, process, or access all of it. (This would be my hundreds of thousands of emails that, had I saved them, I would never have the time to read.) It has been accompanied by a drought that leaves vast trunks of information and content without access to any tributary of support. All we can do is gaze upon the dusty boxes of floppy disks and wonder what might be encoded in them in a language every bit as dead and unknown as the Maya glyphs.

2 Responses to “The deluge and the drought”

  1. Joe Says:

    In June, 1987, I had the really nice privilege to go to the ALA convention in San Francisco. At that same timeframe that you’re referring to, and toured the Main Library there. At that time, as I recall, the shelves, halls, passageways, everywhere were books. Shelving systems went to the cornices of that old building’s every room. Also, that same year a film called ‘Slow Fires’ told the story of the preservation of old books by microfilming (the highest technology available) and storing the records before the acid content in the paper on which the books were printed destroyed them. As in all history, and recordkeeping rarities and preservation will keep some things and other things will be lost. I’m betting that my Atlantic City Bus Schedule Collection will be worth millions one day. Along with Aunt Clara’s Doorknob Museum.

  2. Doug Hackney Says:

    Your post reminds us that we make assumptions about the longevity of access to information that are unwarranted.

    During our lifetimes, at least for those in my age cohort, we experienced a long period when playback / access to information was more or less static. The LP existed for essentially my entire conscious music-fan lifetime. A 3-D Disney disc I looked at in my ViewMaster as a kid was still viewable in my children’s ViewMaster. The 35mm film projector at the first theater I attended in Grinnell, Iowa used the same format and would still play the first films my children viewed more than 20 years later. A slide projector used to put friends and family asleep with vacation slides in the early sixties would still display contemporary slides in the late nineties, probably to the same effect. And, obviously, the favorite book of my childhood, The Mad Scientists Club, could still be read by my children.

    However, once the world moved from analog to digital, we lost that relatively static era of storage and retrieval / playback / access to information.

    Long before your 3.5″ Apple disks, there were 5.25″ floppy disks, themselves preceded by 8” floppy disks. Aside from museums, it is extremely challenging to even locate an 8” floppy disk drive. And even if you can locate the drive, you still have to find a way to physically connect it to a modern computer plus write an operating system hardware driver to access the floppy drive. If you overcame those challenges, you’d need to write further software to read what is now an obsolete format, the means of physically storing the data on the magnetic surface of the floppy disk. If you were able to do that, you’d then need to translate those WordStar or other obsolete word processing software proprietary format files into a modern format usable by a modern software application such as MS Word. Along the way down this journey, you’d do all the byte order swaps and 8 to 32 or 64 bit OS translations required. And of course, this all assumes that the 8” floppy disk was still readable, and didn’t have permanent loss of its magnetic surface or non-recoverable read errors.

    This seems like a lot of work just to recover “failed novels, detritus, and utter drivel,” which is typically what you find on those old disks. All the good stuff, the “plays, essays, short stories, and poems,” are inevitably on the disk the kids used to play Frisbee or was used as a coaster or is under the stack of refrigerator magnets on the top shelf in the garage.

    The same mix of huge amounts of work and rare discovery of worthwhile data is what drives governments, educational institutions, corporations, businesses and people just like you to do just what you did – pitch the disks.

    Even when people and organizations don’t throw out the data, they always throw out the devices used to access it. They end up in the same spot you did – “No way to read them.” Even NASA did it with the images created by the lunar orbiter prior to the Apollo missions to the moon that were used to determine the best landing spots. This data was suddenly valuable again when the U.S. started making serious moves to return to the moon, but there was no way to read the tapes. If not for a sentimental pack rat who kept a few of the giant Ampex tape drives in her garage, just for old time’s sake, all that data would have been lost. http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-111408a.html

    The issue of long-term retrieval of archival data is a big concern in the computing, library, and archive worlds. I wrote about this topic quite a bit during my last career, waving the same red flags of warning you display in your post. Neither myself or my peers gained much success at the top levels, but at least there are projects around the world that strive to migrate the world’s most “valuable” data to current platforms and media. The “non-valuable” data, alas, ends up on the modern versions of 8” floppies. And of course, the people who define “valuable” come and go, so just because, say, Wochner’s Greatest Hits, may make the cut in 2010’s transition to new media, there is no guarantee it will do so the next time.

    The primary challenge we face is the seductive nature of immediacy. That which is current is valued highest; that which is past has none. I’d tell you to look at today’s newspaper versus yesterday’s as an example, but that doesn’t carry much impact when it’s just two different clicks on your laptop or Kindle.

    There are two great ironies here. The first is that in an age when our species has more access to more information than at any other time in its history, the species as a whole is too overwhelmed with that information to make constructive use of almost all of it. The second is that the information / media / cultural artifacts / data that is important, that is defining, that in other eras would form the quintessential characteristics of our age, is being willfully discarded every single day.

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