Pen pictures and qwerty keyboards

I was sitting at the reference desk one day last week when a man—one of our regular patrons—approached the desk and asked if I knew what a “pen picture” is. He had seen the phrase in two unrelated places recently and was confused about the meaning of the term. He had googled the term for a definition, and he got the result: “Archaic (19th century): 1. A drawing done in pen; 2: a written account that creates a mental image.” He was not sure how that applied to the two cases he had seen labeled pen pictures, as one of them was a poem, and the other was a recollection of past events.

I helped him to understand how both the poem and the recollection fit the second definition of “a written account that creates a mental image.” We also agreed that the phrase “pen picture” no longer applies, since written documents in the 21st century are created at keyboards. The conversation brought back memories of the way I used to write as compared to the way I write today.

When I was in high school and college, I would always write a first draft of a paper for school—or of a story—in pen. I would note all my corrections and additions, and then I would type the final draft with an electric typewriter. Even when I got my first desktop computer, I continued to handwrite the first drafts of my work. Only after several years of using a computer did I begin drafting my first drafts at the keyboard, editing them while I wrote them, and then printing a final copy on paper. Of course now I often publish my writing electronically and never have a paper copy of what I have written.

Paper can be destroyed quickly in a fire or a storm. Paper can disintegrate or fade slowly because of light, heat, humidity, mold, insects, rodents, and other hazards. Electronic records are also subject to loss. Computers crash. Storage devices fail. Technology changes, making older storage devices unusable. Even “the Cloud” can lose electronic documents and pictures. The best policy for preserving an electronic file is to save it three different places. Some writers email copies of their work to themselves as back-up copies.

In many cases, when a researcher visits a research library to view a digitally-created document—a string of emails, for example—the library staff prints the document on paper for the researcher. When the researcher is done with the document, the library staff saves the paper copy in case another researcher wants to see the same document later; they will not have to go through the trouble of finding and printing a second copy for the second researcher. The digital age was expected to reduce our reliance on paper, but often paper is still the best way to observe and preserve a digitally-created document or picture.

“Pen picture” may be an archaic term that has fallen out of use, but bloggers and other writers today continue to produce pen pictures of sorts. We still “dial” our cellular phones and still type with “Qwerty” keyboards that were designed to reduce the jamming of typewriter keys. Our digital pen pictures continue to produce mental images in the minds of others. As much as our technology changes, people are still people; we don’t change all that much from generation to generation. J.

Painting books

The most important words in my job description are “and other duties as required.” Those other duties have included setting up chairs, putting away chairs, building shelves, selling popcorn and candy bars and beer, and moving ten tons of paper in one day. My latest accomplishment, though, has taken me by surprise. My boss has me down in the basement painting books.

It’s not exactly painting that I’m doing; it’s more sealing the covers of books. These are large ledger books with red leather covers. Some of them are more than one hundred years old. Even under the best conditions, leather deteriorates over time. A product is made that, although it cannot reverse the deterioration that has already happened, it can cover up the leather and prevent further deterioration.

The mixture of chemicals I’m using has the viscosity of egg white, and it smells like a doctor’s office. The smell is caused by isopropyl alcohol, the chemical that evaporates to leave the surface sealed. I’m using sponge brushes with wooden handles to apply this stuff to the book covers. Hence, I tell people that this week I am painting books.

When my boss assigned me this task, he told me that I would be working in the basement so that the smell would not bother my co-workers. He also suggested I not do this task for too long at one time. “I don’t want to find you passed out on the floor down here,” he said. So I am taking the job about eight books at a time, then letting them dry and doing other things before I return for the next eight books.

They are huge and heavy ledger books. My boss didn’t give me detailed instructions on how to do this job, but I’ve painted houses before, and I’ve sealed wood on a deck. I was sure I could figure out a successful procedure. I pick up each book, make a note of what it contains (because at the end I’ll need a list of all the books in the set), and brush the cover lightly with a cleaning brush to remove any dust or other particles. Then I lay the book on a table and paint the front cover. I then slide my hand under the book and turn it so I can paint the spine. Then I lay the book down again and start the next book. After about three books, the cover of the first book is dry, so I can flip it on its front cover and paint the back.

I haven’t mentioned this to my boss, but last month I hurt my arm moving furniture at home. Now I’ve got a steady ache around my elbow that sometimes twinges when I reach for something (like a door) or when I grasp something (like a ledger book). The pain is survivable, but I doubt I’m doing whatever muscle or ligament is stressed by carrying heavy books and painting them.

Aside from that, the work is quite pleasant. The basement is quiet and still. The books look beautiful when they get their wet cover of sealant. Of course the sealant is clear when it dries, so the old scars and stains reappear. Even so, the sealed books have a greater vibrancy of red with gold trim than those books I have not yet sealed.

Today they tested the fire alarm at work. Of course they sent an email out first, telling employees we would not need to evacuate the building. Of course I was in the basement painting books and didn’t get the email. The first time the alarm sounded, I thought for a second about whether or not I should leave, decided to leave, screwed the cover on the sealant container, and headed for the door. I had just gone up the stairs and reached the door to the parking lot when the alarm stopped. I didn’t see other employees standing outside, so I figured it was safe to get back to work. The second time the alarm sounded I thought for a few seconds, decided it was smarter to leave, and was halfway across the basement when the alarm stopped. After that, the other tests were so brief that I didn’t even have time to think about leaving before I knew I didn’t need to leave.

By the end of the week I should have all the books painted, and I should have the list of books ready so other people know where to find these books. I’m curious about what other new and unique opportunities I’ll have at this job the rest of the month.

J.

Ten tons of paper

One day last month I moved ten tons of paper. I didn’t move it all at the same time, of course, or all at once. The paper was in boxes, lots of boxes, averaging forty pounds a box. Some weighed less than forty pounds, but a lot of them weighed more. It took three of us about six hours to finish the project, but I know that during these six hours I moved at least five hundred boxes.

I work at a library. One department of the library is an archive. Individuals, families, businesses, and other organizations donate their papers to the library so other people can study those papers and learn about those people and organizations and their contributions to the history of our city. After the papers have been donated, a team of archivists prepares them for researchers. The archivists go through the papers, removing rusty staples and paper clips, hardened rubber bands, and other harmful items. Next they organize the paper to help the researchers, although they try to maintain the original order whenever possible, since the order of the papers is part of their story. Finally, the archivists write a description, or index, of the papers, which they call a Finding Aid. This description tells researchers what the library has and where they can find these papers.

The library is running short of storage space. To use space more efficiently, the library’s directors bought shelves that move along a track. These movable shelves can contain more boxes than regular shelves, since there is only one aisle for the whole set of shelves, but the shelves can be moved left or right along the track, making every box accessible (but not all of them at the same time). To use these shelves, though, the library’s workers first had to empty the old shelves, dismantle and remove them, install the new shelves, and then put the boxes on the new shelves. That is what I did last month—moved ten tons of paper in boxes onto their new, space-efficient shelves.

Some reader is saying right now, “Hey, J., why doesn’t your library join the twenty-first century? You could save a lot of time and a lot of space if you would just digitize all those papers instead of storing them and organizing them and describing them. You could load the digital copies into the Cloud and send the paper out to be recycled.” Well, I’m sorry, dear reader, but it is not as easy as you think. I can give you three very good reasons why your up-to-the-minute proposal doesn’t work.

First, do you have any idea how many pages are contained in ten tons of paper? Can you imagine how many hours of labor it would take to run each one of those pages through a scanner? And even if the library wanted to spend money to digitize every sheet of paper, what kind of server do you think could handle all those scans and make them available to the public?

Second, even if they did digitize all those pages and publish them online somewhere, how would researchers know what was in those pages? They still need to be organized and described to be useful to anyone. As a book needs a table of contents and an index, so a collection of historic papers—including ledger books, maps, photographs, and all kinds of other stuff—needs a finding aid to make research possible.

Third, digital technology itself can fail. Computers crash, files become corrupted, and technology always changes. If the only copy of some important document is digital, sooner or later it will disappear. How many of us have lost priceless (to ourselves) stories and essays and photographs because we trusted a computer to save it for us? The library’s staff of archivists will digitize the papers and photographs of greatest value to researchers, and they will make them available online; but to be safe, they still will not discard the originals. Most of the tons of paper will not be digitized. It will be cleaned and arranged and described.

The library directors are wise to accept these gifts of paper, to pay archivists to organize and describe these gifts, and to keep these gifts carefully in storage for researchers today and for researchers of generations yet to come. I am glad that I, in one small way last month, was allowed to contribute to the preservation of history.
J.