Whiskey, Hostels and No Butterfly Clips - Explaining Hard Copy to My Born-Digital Peers

Hostels are great places for grad students to stay when travelling to archives. Not just because they’re cheap, but because they’re full of friendly people with heavy accents asking, “So, what brings you here?” It forces you to describe your work in a few seconds of simple English and cope with the reactions. I’m lucky that my thesis topic has some obvious real-world relevance.

On my first night in Ottawa, my whisky-drunk new housemate asked that perennial question and seemed perplexed by my answer. As a computer science grad, working in the telecom industry, he had a couple of questions.

I explained what a primary source was, but he still didn’t see why I’d come to look at hard copies, asking,

  • 2) “No offence, but why don’t they just digitize this stuff? After all, it’s a public archive.”
  • I explained how much time and manpower it takes to put documents online, and how budget constraints slow down the creation of ‘online collections’ to a snail’s pace. Archives put as much as they can online, but they stick to visually appealing and/or popular stuff (famous people, the two World Wars and picturesque black-and-white images). Sometimes they take on a controversial topic, like child labour or a genocide, perhaps as a service to middle school civics teachers.

    The comp sci major took another swig of Jack-and-Coke and looked at me skeptically. Then he started to tell me how cool World War II was. Score one more for the canny archivists.

    Later that week, ploughing through a filing box from the 1970s, I was still surprised that anyone could expect the entire contents of the National Archives of Canada to be online.

    As I turned over another page of the file, I came to an envelope. I undid the ties holding it closed and took out the report.

    Then it hit me – all the office infrastructure that I was dealing with was designed to be used by human hands, not machines. A computer couldn’t put a report in a manila envelope, and a scanner could never have undone that string closure. None of the pages in the dossier were the same size. The entire system was incompatible with current technology.

    Each file had a grid on the front, so that people could sign it out (in longhand) and return it. Every carbon-copied, butterfly-clipped, watermarked piece of paper in that file was a totally different era technology. It can’t be search by keyword and for most of my fellow hostel guests, that means that it doesn’t exist.

    That file is less than forty years old and we live with the laws, policies, artistic conventions, manners and mores of that time.

    Sometimes I don’t think my parents’ generation talks enough about the information revolution that they went through. Is it too ubiquitous, too everyday to mention? Are they afraid of sounding like old fogies? Or is the pace of change, dizzying as it is, just sufficiently slow enough that they haven’t noticed it? Maybe they’re just hoarding up their memoirs on notepaper, with decent penmanship.

    I usually think of myself as a historian of modern times, so modern that many of my classmates and profs think of my topics as journalism, current events. My research requires no dead languages and I decipher no palimpsests. I even do interviews with living people, sometimes.

    And yet, I’m still on the far side of the Information Revolution, studying the decisions made by people using telegrams, punch cards and Photostats.

    And that world isn’t gone, even if it’s separated by a paradigm shift or two. The people running for office today grew up with these filing systems that seem so utterly foreign to my peers.

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