First, I’d like to tell you a story about something that happened in our house yesterday.
My ten year old son, a huge J.R.R. Tolkien fan (he has watched all of the Peter Jackson movies — extended version — several times, and has read the books to boot) was rooting around in my office. He unearthed a lovely, boxed BBC radio version of The Lord of the Rings adapted by Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell.
He was delighted! Some of his favourite stories, in audio format!
The drawback — they are on cassette tape. He was excited, but not quite sure what to do.
“Mom! Do you have a Walkman that I can listen to these?” His eyes were shining in anticipation of crawling into his bed with his stories on a rainy day. Well, that was the first drawback. Once upon a time, I had my brother’s old Walkman, that played cassette tapes. But I lent it, years ago, to my great uncle as he lay dying in hospital, along with a selection of books-on-tape to keep him entertained. It never made it home, for whatever reason.
But I did have, in the back corner of the closet in my office, not one, but TWO ghetto blasters. Riches, indeed!
He hauled out the first one (the larger one, which was older and heavier and I have no idea why he picked it). And promptly disappeared to get things set up and get his story into his ears.
Back again, within five minutes. “Mom, the earphones won’t fit in the hole.” Hmmm. I had forgotten about this small technicality. Remember, back in the 80s, when headphones were huge, earbuds were not invented, and the plug was about two inches long? Yeah, those kind. Well, I may have the ghetto blaster, but I no longer have those headphones, nor do I have an adapter.
So, we switched to the smaller, slightly newer ghetto blaster. It had the proper-sized headphone jack, adaptable to his snazzy earbuds. Excellent. I returned to my own tasks, and left him to it.
Less than three minutes later, he was back. “Mom, how do I get it to go to the beginning?” He was puzzled and clearly stumped. “Press ‘rewind’” I said, equally puzzled. Wasn’t that obvious? “But it makes a terrible noise, Mom! And it takes so long! I think something is wrong! Please come and help.”
Well of course, everything was fine with the boom box. He had the tape in the right way down, so that was fine, but he had it facing the wrong way (side two) so even if he had pressed ‘rewind’ and waited, he still wouldn’t have gotten to where he wanted to be. I patiently explained how tapes work, how they move through the boombox, how they have been recorded on both sides and so you have to flip them over. And yes, it does take time to find the right spot in the tape. And yes, it does make noise when it rewinds or fast forwards. And yes, it’s a lot harder to skip ahead or back. You have to go by feel.
He glared, grumped, and moaned a bit more at the weirdness of it all, but then settled down to listen.
Typically, when a new piece of technology makes its appearance in our house, I am the last to figure out what to do. Or, second last — I might be a shade more up-to-date than my husband. But miles behind our kids, in most instances. When I brought home a new Samsung tablet computer, my son promptly took it in hand to get everything operating well. Remotes, Wii games, and the kids’ ipods are similarly ‘their’ territory.
So this incident made me feel a lot better. As a parent, I had an area of expertise that I could share — related to technology. Of course, they ribbed me for that. ‘Mom, this is from, like, the 1980s!’, as if that was just after the dinosaurs. Yes, I really am that old. And I like old things. I am a historian, after all.
It reminded me, though, of an incident in the archives last year. While rooting through some Saskatchewan Archives Board files on the Royal Commission on Agriculture and Rural Life from 1952, I found a fabulous recording on a blue, small vinyl record of the meetings that were held in my hometown of Paddockwood. I was beside myself. My grandmother was the secretary of those meetings, which I knew from her written records carefully preserved in the archival documents. I was so excited to hear her voice again, and went running for the archivist to see if we could play the recordings. But, unfortunately, the archives no longer has the technology to play those old records. They weren’t the same technology as a simple turntable, I learned. In fact, I had ‘discovered’ an oral record that the archives had lost track of.
They took it away and assured me that they would investigate getting it transferred onto something useful in our ‘modern’ era. I never saw or heard from them again on the issue — I shall have to send a reminder email to see where they are at. But I’m guessing that no news is bad news, in this instance. The technology may no longer exist to hear those recordings.
I know that archivists are acutely aware of the impact of the frighteningly fast changes in technology. Records put on one kind of disk or burned onto a CD Rom seem out of date just a few short years later. Even computers, with their constant upgrades, no longer seem to take into account ‘older’ technology. (For various aspects of this debate and concern, see:http://blogs.cisco.com/government/technology-changes-the-game-for-next-generation-governments/; http://archivists.ca/content/technology-and-archives-special-interest-section. See also various articles inArchivaria.)
I have one computer that I no longer use but am too afraid to throw away, because it has a ZIP drive and a 3.5 inch floppy — neither of which my new computer possesses. I still have old documents, including my MA thesis, on 3.5 floppies and zips. One of the reasons I bought a tablet computer was so that my children would get used to using touch technology — but I also note their frustration when they have to use my ‘old’ computer. It is pretty slow, by comparison. I can’t imagine what they’d think of my stored computer, gathering dust in the bottom of my closet. I think it has Windows, but a really old version.
(Full disclosure: this house has two desktop computers that are hooked up, and one in storage, in addition to two laptops, one tablet, two ipods and two smartphones. There are four people).
So, although I suppose some people may call me a technological hoarder, I can see the benefit: after all, I had a ghetto blaster, that worked, just when my son needed it. That’s something. I just have to make sure I have a house big enough to keep all my old computers and other technology, when the new ones enter our lives.