Wednesday, March 04, 2009

I do not however miss tape drives

In fourth grade or so I did an in-depth research project on the Pony Express. My mother suggested I dig up newspaper articles as source material and escorted me to the Schenectady Library (the main branch of our library system). Paper indices of the New York Times were cross-referenced to the boxes of microfilm I needed, but staying on-task once the film was loaded into the reader was near impossible. These were real newspapers from the 1860s! The advertisements! The headlines! Sitting in front of the machine with the stories glowing in front of me, the film whirring as I skipped forward and back, heightened the sense of time-travel.

The process became somewhat less exciting as my academic career progressed; looking up 20-year-old academic articles isn’t quite so fascinating. But in graduate school I worked in the library’s microfilm department and was again enchanted. Most people were too lazy to get their articles themselves so they sent in a request and paid me to do it. I’ll admit to occasionally being glad when they wanted something from the less time-consuming microfiche collection. But the process of seeking out articles on all subjects from all eras was made more romantic by the pages of the microfilm flying by, and I became adept at stopping on the right page on the first try.

Long periods of reading microfilm is awful on your eyes; storage and retrieval is space and time inefficient. But it gives me the same pleasure as a few other time-consuming anachronisms- darkroom work and mixed-cassette-tape production come to mind. There’s the visceral pleasure in the process itself plus the technical pleasure in accomplishing something that requires some work- it gives a sense that you’ve Done Something, not just hit “print” after using a search engine or clicked an icon in Photoshop. I miss it.

(Reminded by this.)

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