Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Word Processing, Circa 1983

If someone wants to gain the notion of how much creating documents has changed in just a few decades, picking up an old guide to writing with a word processor provides a remarkably graphic picture of this (not unlike looking at the mobile telecommunications technologies in a movie or television show of just a decade ago). William Zinsser’s Writing with a Word Processor (New York: Harper and Row, 1983) is a candid and valuable historical document for demonstrating how adjusting to such recording technologies has been transformed.

Zinsser’s brief book is no longer of any use for assisting someone to learn to do word processing. Describing an elaborate ordeal of shopping for a computer at the IBM store, waiting two weeks for a delivery of the equipment, working with technicians at home to get his equipment properly set-up, and working with a memory of about a 1000 words, this is a description of a long ago universe. What Zinsser’s book now communicates to us is world where one made a quantum leap from paper to digital (remember this is before the World Wide Web) and where one worked with a “constant fear of loss” (p. 54).

Writing with a Word Processor is useful because Zinsser is an observant witness of one used to being comfortable with typewriters and paper. At the beginning of the book, Zinsser observes, “I belong to a generation of writers and editors who think of paper and pencil as holy objects.” Zinsser continues, “The feel of paper is important to me. I have always thought that a writer should have physical control with the materials of his craft. . . “ (p. vii). All through this book, Zinsser struggles with his new world: “The hardest thing for me to think about was the idea of getting along without paper” (p. 20). Zinsser attributes such attitudes to how writers work, although such attitudes extend far beyond just professional writers. However, Zinsser’s perspective as a writer is quite revealing: “I found it hard to believe that I had brought into my life a set of writing devices that I would always have to activate. I couldn’t just sit down and write; I would have to think about pushing certain keys and inserting diskettes. Now, just to push the ON switch seemed like a major decision” (pp. 30-31).

What Writing with a Word Processor opens to us is the world of writing and recordkeeping we used to live in, where there was a lot of paranoia caused by the technology. “When everything is written down on paper it can be found and reviewed and put to use on some other piece of paper,” Zinsser reflects. “But when words are mere shadows of light in an electronic box they offer no such security” (p. 105). This is a world most of my students have no memory of, even if they have experienced the occasional loss of work. Most people born after 1980, or certainly after 1985, have no sense of a world where there wasn’t the Web and where everything they created wasn’t in a digital form. Zinsser’s book reminds us have fast our world has changed.