Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hitting the Wall, Technologically Speaking

Note, this is a draft of a column to be published in Legal Information Alert. RL]

Well, ok. It happened. I hit the technology wall.

It didn’t hurt or anything, but it was kind of stunning, and it made me laugh. In the back of my mind, however, there’s now an ache, a melancholy low-keyed, distant panic is now resting there. Waiting. You’re gonna hit it, too. So be prepared.

Here’s the thing. Yesterday I got official word that I had just won a professional award for “distinguished” service to a special interest section (SIS) of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL). It caught me completely off-guard because, while I’ve been a member for years, the last time I held an office in it was 1989. (It looks like it’s true, if you stick around long enough, eventually people notice....) The special interest section is called, Computer Services SIS. When I was president of the section, it was called the Automation and Scientific Development SIS, and the section’s newsletter, which I also edited, was called The Automatome. The title of the section and the newsletter each provide an interesting perspective of the state of technology back in the day. In fact, at my last meeting as chair of the section, I proposed that the section should no longer exist. My rationale was that since technology was becoming so prevalent in our professional lives, it was analogous to having a special interest section on paper!

The experience got me thinking nostalgically about the ‘old days,’ and I thought that it would be fun to bring copies of the old newsletter to the meeting and share some of the quaint observations it contained. For example, I remember writing a review of a new 20 megabyte hard drive and describing how it would change the world. I know there are other gems contained in those old issues. I’ve never been shy about commenting on technological developments and predicting the future, so I thought that it would be fun to resurrect The Automatome and have a laugh.

And then I hit the wall. I have a few paper copies of The Automatome in a trunk in my basement, but I don’t know if I have a complete set, and I don’t know what is their condition. Not to worry, I have them in electronic format, of course. In 3.5 inch floppy disks! Formatted in who knows what number Mac OS?! It could be system 4 for all I know. And who knows what version of Word for Mac I was using? (These are rhetorical questions, obviously, because, at this point, only I know the answers to these questions. But, simply looking at the discs won’t necessarily tell me how they’re formatted or what software I used. Perhaps I was still using MacWrite....) But in order to actually use the files to do anything, I’d need to boot up my old Mac, which hasn’t been turned on in nearly twenty years and see what happens.

But let’s suppose that I was able to fire up the old Mac Plus, load the software and open the documents; all of which is possible, I should add. Then what am I supposed to do with it? As far as I can remember, in those days, I was using Compuserve for email and haven’t kept up my account; so emailing a copy of the documents to myself wouldn’t work. The computer didn’t (doesn’t) have any USB ports or any way that I could use to transfer the documents from the computer to another kind of present day storage media.

I could try to print the documents. I still have the original Image Writer that I used for years. It was a cool, state of the art dot-matrix, Postscript printer. I’m sure that I don’t have any print cartridges, and I’m not sure where I could get one. I could try to use a new printer, but I am pretty sure HP doesn’t make a printer driver that for an old Mac OS computer.

See what I mean? I hit the wall. The best I can hope for at this point is to fire up the old Mac Plus and take photos of the screen! I suppose I could lug the computer around and fire it up when I wanted to show people the issues of the old newsletter. As a practical matter, many people don’t realize that one of the original accessories for the Mac was a canvas case that actually had a should strap and a pouch for an external disk drive; in short, the original Mac Plus, all 20/25 pounds of it was conceived of as a portable computer. Hauling the Mac around to show my friends and colleagues vintage computer newsletters on a vintage computer, has a certain elegance to it, doesn’t it?

In short, it’s a wall that we’ll all hit more than once, going forward. In fact, I’m sure that it’s happening with many documents, some of them even more important that old copies of Automatome. Is this a sort of personal morality play for law librarians, to be on guard against saving documents in formats that potentially may become obsolete?

Perhaps. In any case, be forewarned that taking any present format for granted may lead you into a narrow alley with no exits....