The challenge of dated data

tamrawilson Uncategorized

Until last week, a plastic box languished in the bottom of my drawer. The box was the size of a bread loaf containing slices of plastic—computer diskettes from the 1990s–my backup system before flash drives and Carbonite. The last computer that could read the disks was junked three years ago.

diskettesI tossed the floppies out in a fit of New Year’s resolutions to clean up and clean out. The information on the diskettes is now gone forever because the machinery to read it isn’t available.

It reminded me or a project I did 10 years ago. My friend Texie Doolittle and I were asked to transcribe family letters owned by the late Helen Pulliam of Newton. It took us 18 months off and on to meticulously decipher everything—every jot and tittle. The documents were written in various forms of legibility but working together, we deciphered the story of a family caught up in the American Civil War. We could read cursive writing though the 19th century version was a challenge.

Over those tedious months we learned how to identify the writer by the language and shape of the letters, the cadence of their words, the date and location of the writing. We came to know the writers and empathize with their struggles. The letters took us there through original documents.

The letters were later made available to archives in various states, along with a typed script of the contents in case CDs are no longer readable. I know this will happen. CDs will go the way of 78 rpm records, reel-to-reel audiotape, Betamax cassettes, floppy disks and diskettes.

I think of today’s students who are not being taught cursive handwriting. It’s too old fashioned and cumbersome for the digital age, educators say.

The inability to read cursive writing means today’s students cannot read original documents before the typewriter and handwritten history before and since. They cannot read grandpa’s letters or grandma’s recipes, or share the kind of experience Texie and I had discovering an intimate slice of history written by those who lived it. Not being able to read old documents condemns those who come after to trust earlier translations. It stifles one’s ability to research, ponder and interpret.  And the implications for an informed, free society are staggering.

Technology and educational methods may work for a while like the loaf of diskettes I threw out. Without a reader, the content is worthless.