Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Discards



     Not everything is online.
     Over the weekend I was writing about moving into our new offices at 30 N. Racine.
     And I thought that I should give a quick run-down of where the Chicago Sun-Times has been located during its 76 year history, starting with the creation of the Chicago Sun in 1941. 
      Which raised the question of where the original Chicago Sun offices where.
      Nothing in Wikipedia. Nothing that popped out of Google Books. Nothing anywhere. I wasn't that worried because I happened to have a copy of Volume 1, No. 1 of the Sun, bought on eBay for $5. Surely, that would say. Down in the basement to retrieve it—it was in the box I thought it would be in. So far, so good.
      But the address wasn't in the paper. Not in the little box of legalese on page five, where I thought it would be. Not in the big story ballyhooing the start of publication, going over again and again about the three newsreel cameras and the radio microphones relaying the news to a grateful world, presided over by Mayor Kelly and Governor Green and not once saying where the heck this entire circus was taking place. 
     Maddening. You wanted to reach across the decades and shake them. Where is it?!?!
     Not that pawing through the Dec. 4, 1941 Sun wasn't interesting. There, on the front page of the third section: "County Pushes Plans for Its First Super Highway," news of the "first super-speed, no-intersection express highway similar to those in New York and Pennsylvania. The new road, to be known as Edens Parkway, will start at Peterson and Caldwell avenues and run north to join the Skokie road five miles south of the Lake county line."
    The new road would have two lanes in each direction.
    Interesting. But not what I was after. I must have looked online for 20 minutes and finally I thought. "Back to the paper. You must have missed it."  Indeed I did. There, in the little box on page 5 I had started at and somehow overlooked: "Published daily and Sunday at 400 West Madison Street, Chicago, Il."
     A fact which, before my story Monday, had never appeared online before, that I can tell. Not once. Nothing in Nexis. Nothing anywhere. Why would it? 
    You never know what odd question you are going to have, and where that information might hide. I did brusquely throw those card catalogue cards away, and it was honestly liberating. But it was also done by force of will, by straight-arming thought, never mind regret, the way you would drown a litter of kittens if you had to. Close your eyes and do it. 
     I'm the guy who read Nicholson Baker's book about preserving old newspaper archives, "Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper," and was outraged, and grieved along with him, cheering Baker on as he races to save the last complete bound run of the Times of London. Most to the point, I read "Discards," his 1994 (!!!!) piece in The New Yorker about the tactile and informational value of card catalogues, a plea for their preservation. Sign me up!
     When possible. The good news is we are in an age of conservation that dwarfs any in the past. The internet is the greatest library in the history of the world, bar none, and also the most permanent, or so one hopes. Preserving the past used to be an issue—it still is, but not the primary one. There is also cutting through the enormous mass of stuff we now have at our fingertips. You can't care about everything—that's a recipe for caring about nothing. You can't preserve everything. You have to pick your battles. But I am glad I held onto that first copy of the Sun. 



     

6 comments:

  1. In another life I was a librarian. To a librarian a card catalog was a sacred thing, representing countless hours of precise work, but more importantly, a record of the sum of mankind's knowledge and a path to that knowledge. The thought of throwing one away remains mind blowing. Yet, like you, I did it once upon a time. Computer technology is as emotionlessly relentless as prairie fire - it kills the old so that the new may flourish. Your line "the way you would drown a litter of kittens if you had to" is one of the most shockingly casual utterances I've ever read - and it fits perfectly. This is why yours is the best daily writing on the globe.

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  2. I sure hope you're right about the internet and its permanence. Otherwise there's going to be a large information gap in the future.

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  3. I once had the opportunity to drown a sick puppy that an American Indian household could not afford to keep. The women wanted to get rid of the poor dog, but didn't have the heart to kill it. However I rationalized it, I volunteered to do so, with the resolve to show myself a man to my Indian not-quite-a-maiden, who could be heartless and even cruel if necessary as expected of a real man. I took the dog to a nearby creek in the Wisconsin woods and held its head under water until it stopped struggling. Then I flung the corpse as far as I could into the underbrush. Two days later, the dog showed up at the house, a frisky healthy puppy apparently cured by a couple days rest. I was greatly relieved that my attempt at murder had failed.

    john

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  4. When you occasionally have to chase down a tidbit of information that's not available online, that's when you appreciate the convenience and efficiency of online data.

    A few years ago, I was doing an article about rising food prices, and my boss told me to do a brief sidebar on a similar situation in the mid-1970s. I could only find stray bits and pieces of info online--not enough to anchor a coherent article, even a short one. So I trundled to the library and spend most of the day whirring through reels of microfilmed back issues of Time and Newsweek. It took me hours to gather the information for a little 200-word sidebar--a task that would have taken me maybe 20 minutes had it been available online.

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  5. In the late 70s early 80s i had a job where you would sit and pick little pieces of plastic off of widgets and we would talk and occasionally there'd be a disagreement of some sort. My mom told me that when you needed the answer to a question you could call the library and the librarian would look it up for you. We tried it, I was shocked but she was very sweet about the inconvenience to her day and she told us the answer to the question that solved our disagreement. Nowadays they call this trueoogling. For some reason we find ourselves doing this all the time. how did everything get to be a disagreement and why is it so important to have the correct answer and how do you know that the answer Google gives you really is correct?
    It's funny thinking about that job I realize that the widgets were for the banking industry and they went on a machine that would number and date and cancel our checks. Checks! I know they're still around but I hardly ever use one It's All Digital currency now very little cash involved or checks anyway

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  6. FME's comment is fascinating. Once long ago, I ran checks through a machine to process them in...maybe one of her machines. Even tho I haven't signed a check in years, I would have saved the cards. LOL

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