Sifting Through the Pre-Digital Past

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Sifting Through the Pre-Digital Past

Darcy Courteau

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2m 39sec

There is a sort of housework that is especially onerous, that which calls for decisions about what to pitch and what to hang on to. The right scrap of paper just might be worth something somewhere down the line, or perhaps some authority will at some point demand this or that document, and, satisfied, slink away. Here at The Wilson Quarterly, we’ve been knee-deep in this kind of housekeeping, excavating file cabinets whose contents date back, if not to the era of the original office malcontent, Bartleby the Scrivener, then to the 1970s.

Like Bartleby, most of us at the WQ had preferred not to deal with mounds of papers, but after some jostling, came to spell each other in front of the files, newer staff inspecting each document while old-timers urged them to just toss it all, and then regretfully dug through the recycle bin. Indeed, the files were full of archeological gems, evidencing a pre-Microsoft and Internet world when the publishing arts were as much manual as intellectual labor.

A painstakingly inked air bill from Calcutta requesting permission to reprint an article prompted editor Steve to recall the Quarterly’s own groveling letters to the Louvre, begging various Messieurs to mail us slides of images to reproduce in the magazine. Now, of course, art research is conducted almost exclusively online, the images purchased and downloaded in moments. Those of us come of age with email received with a mix of awe and horror the story of a past editor who drove last-minute edits to an author in New Haven; he embarked on a Sunday night, left the manuscript on the author’s doorstep, and then drove back to D.C., rumpled but ready for Monday morning.

Business director Suzanne, who came to the Woodrow Wilson Center as an intern in the mid-1980s, likewise chuckled over typed letters sporting penciled-over errors—no shame in that when fixes meant retyping a page rather than quickly jimmying with the .doc and hitting Ctrl + P. She remembered the Center’s typing pool, five or so stern women to whom the scholars would bring their work. Several new word-processing Lexitrons made for “a big advance”; when computers finally arrived to replace them, the head typist threw herself on her Lexitron until the supply van driver left without it. “It’s so civilized here,” Suzanne added, “compared to how it was in the old days.”

One thingamajig befuddled us all: a roller device coated in what appeared to be glue. We finally appealed to our itinerant designer, David, for an explanation. It’s a hand waxer, used to apply wax adhesive to galley mock-ups in the days before InDesign. David, a survivor of those ancient times, wistfully pocketed the old piece, vowing to put it in a display case.

Most of our old files are cleared out now. We have, however, amassed two bowls full of paper clips, conscientiously salvaged from the recycling bin—the tiny spiral fasteners one of the few publishing technologies to have retained their original function.

Photo: A request from Calcutta from the WQ archives