When I briefly worked in the archival collection at my former university, one of the things I absolutely loathed was dealing with old faxes printed on thermal paper. Text and images printed this way tend to fade or disappear very quickly, which is why archival collections (and anyone else who needs faxes for record-keeping purposes — courts and the like) require them to be photocopied and preserve the photocopy rather than the original. The goal is to preserve the information rather than the (extremely unreliable) object of the fax printout itself. Some of this problem has been solved for future preservationists, of course, by the recent switch to inkjet printers and other plain-paper solutions for fax printouts, but that doesn’t change what a pain it is to deal with both old and new thermal print documents (thermal print machines are, regrettably, still in use). The point is nearly moot for many of us, of course, now that email is A Thing (and a whole new can of digital preservation worms). Still, once upon a time the fax was a Big Deal, and it’s worth one’s while to think a bit about what the machine’s pioneers and power users thought it could do as a communication medium.
This brings us to today’s trip through the deaccession pile, and an impressively prescient book whose time had nearly passed even when it was new:
Philip C. W. Sih’s Fax Power: High Leverage Business Communications (Von Rostrand Rheinhold, 1993) is the sort of book that ends up being neither fish nor fowl in an academic library collection. It’s mostly an introduction to then-current fax and digital communication technologies, living right at the moment when it becomes clear that the shift from print to purely digital information exchange is inevitable. It is, perhaps, a little too technical for the business folk who really ought to know about what it says, but not quite technical enough for the computer folk who were probably moving on from the technology it describes about a week after the book’s publisher sent it to print. The author actually anticipates this difficulty for his own book, in a prescient chapter at the end on future trends:
Fax as we know it today will cease to exist. Instead of being a separate technology that mainly involves the scanning and printing of paper documents, fax will have melded or expanded into a notion of imaging and image management. And images will be just one part of documents, which by then will have become multimedia-like, incorporating any form of communication, human- or machine-readable. Those who insist on connecting “antique” fax equipment to the network will be able to do so through small, intelligent interface boxes that act as translators between the all-digital present and the remote analog past.
Sih, Fax Power (1993), p. 236
The book’s extensive discussion of images and best practices for faxing them is actually fascinating — I won’t go much into it here, beyond saying that in my experience, very few people who ever sent me a fax seem to have had much of a clue about doing it well, never mind getting the point about how to maximize both transmission speed and image detail. The discussion of images in Sih’s chapter on fax performance does include my favorite image/caption combo, though:
In my recently-completed photograph preservation class (I knew nothing about it, so I went back to school), one of the issues that often came up was the matter of what precisely we’re meant to preserve in a photograph collection. Are we trying to preserve the information a photograph presents, or the photograph itself as an object (a question just as pertinent for fragile texts and other information-bearing objects)? The ephemeral nature of a thermal-printed version of this Bearded Canadian or the woman on the cover of Fax Power means that according to all of the usual best practices in archives and library collections, they ought to be copied (scanned, photographed, photocopied, whatever) in order to preserve the information carried in the images; this assumes, of course, that we’re preserving the faxed images rather than (or in addition to) the transmitted originals. In the absence of the originals (assuming the faxed information is worth preserving in the first place), it might still be preferable to get the transmitted digital information from the fax machine’s memory rather than hanging on to a thermal-paper printout (assuming the use of an all-in-one machine that has this capability, as opposed to the old-school traditional fax machines). If the information is all we care about, then a thermal paper image just doesn’t make the cut.
What would it mean, though, to specifically aim to preserve an image in this preservation-unfriendly format? What does mean, for example, to preserve something like David Hockney’sfax art, which was deliberately designed to be transmitted and printed by fax machines using the old thermal paper technology?* Similar questions have, of course, been raised by other moments in art (*cough*Banksy*cough*), but it’s in the context of the intersection of preservation and technology — already on its way to obsolescence even at the height of its power, per Sih — that these questions become most pressing. What are we really preserving, if we choose to go to the effort?
I am not, of course, going to answer that question. I’m more interested in thinking about how it extends to Fax Power itself, as a then-contemporary account of a fading technology. It was neither fish nor fowl in the Business or Computer Science collections, and now it is something else entirely from what it was probably meant to be. We’ve got no room for the object — how much room do we (or should we) have for the information it bears?
* Hockney’s choice of medium has been the occasion of some controversy, and he is hardly the first or last artist who took seriously the artistic possibilities of thermal-printed ephemera (see here and here, for example).
This week’s fun find in the cart of deaccessioned books is the most well-known work by Western (as in cowboys-and-gunfighters) author Eugene Cunningham: Triggernometry:
Don’t be fooled by that plain and simple cover — this is no dry tome full of vaguely worshipful stories about famous shootists. No, this book is ultimately a very instructional sort of text, written by a man who was acquainted with what it described in practical (as opposed to purely historical) and aesthetic terms.
Eugene Cunningham (1896-1907) was primarily a novelist rather than a historian or essayist, with a day job as an editor and a later foray into screenwriting for television. His life prior to the years when he really hit his stride as a writer of good-guys-slaughter-bad-guys Western adventures was exciting enough to deserve its own novelization — he served in the US Navy during WWI (including the Mexican campaign) and WWII (in the intelligence service), and he worked a mercenary in Central America for a while after WWI. While he did work for a while as a military writer between the wars, it wasn’t where he really did his best work or found his greatest success.
Cunningham presents his sketches of some of the more violent characters of the Old West — John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, “Wild Bill” Hickock, Butch Cassidy, and a rogue’s gallery of other gunmen — as a sort of corrective to the myth-making work of the old dime novels, a clear-headed humanizing and de-fantasizing of their acts and characters. He very clearly understood the “print the legend” problem inherent in telling these stories, and took the time to track down witnesses and contemporary accounts outside of the sensational press. There is, nonetheless, more than a whiff of Old West mythological romance about this book. The foreword, written by Cunningham’s friend and fellow Western novelist Eugene Manlove Rhodes, both reinforces the presentation of the book as a de-mythologizing effort and simultaneously signed back on to a vision of the gunman as a narrowly honorable and more-or-less orderly user of controlled violence against other violent men. “Some were pretty poor specimens,” Rhodes admits, “but to compare the vilest of them with such monsters as Leopold and Loeb would be infamous” (xii).
This tension between romance and reality finds its most lively expression in the brief final chapter of the book, the one that shares its title. The chapter is described in the table of contents as containing “Random Testimony of the Experts, With Criticism and Comparisons, Hoglegs and Homicides, Diagrams and Disagreements” (viii). The chapter illustrates draw techniques through a combination of critical technical descriptions/illustrations and colorful anecdotes about their uses and their users.
The consistent thread running through it is an ongoing distinction between the kinds of excellence possible for the life-or-death duellist and those possible for the range shooter or target shooter, exemplified in what I think must be one of my favorite paragraphs in the whole book:
Between amazing speed and hair-line accuracy, naturally the gunman chose to perfect his speed. What use to be the International Pistol Champ’, able to shoot a cigarette out from under the harelipped lady’s mustache, if the other fellow was going to get his hogleg out and smoking and, out of five shots at twelve or fifteen feet, land two bullets in a 22-inch segment of your intimate personality? So the old-time six-slinger practised the draws, perfected hide-outs, thought of nerve-racking tricks.
Eugene Cunningham, Triggernometry (1941), p. 419
“Intimate personality” indeed. *snerk*
We see here, I think, an example of a shift in the target of the romance of the gun — a turn to fetishizing a more brutally practical version of ballistic competence and a related sense of professionalism about the practice of violence. Returning to Rhodes’ foreword, perhaps on this view Leopold and Loeb are all the more monstrous in comparison to Cunningham’s gunmen because of their dilettante approach to violence, their pursuit of the wrong sort of excellence in its practice.
I have no idea how or why this book ended up in a university collection.
Once upon a time, children, before the internet put us in the position to drown in information at high speeds and with a great and terrible efficiency, we used to write stuff down. In fact, we often did so (horrors!) by hand, without the benefit of the printing press or the keyboard or a dictation machine. We put instrument to surface and made that scribbly stuff happen. We preserved, shared, and organized information in ways suitable to this slower and more physically personal form, and doing so went hand in hand with how we thought about and interacted with the world.
Consider, for example, the practice of keeping a commonplace book. This is a tool that can be used to serve much the same basic function as a collection of bookmarks in a browser, or a collection of content maintained, annotated, and organized using a reference manager like Zotero or its many cousins. For those of us who find the act of physically writing things down in order to remember them and think about them attractive, a commonplace book can be an occasion for reflection as well as recollection; while it may not be as easily searchable or shareable as a thoughtfully annotated online collection of the same content, it has the advantage, in it slowness, of requiring sustained care and attention in order to work. These ever-growing texts require organization, for example, so that their users can return to information placed in them and make sense of the connections among those items.
Such books, back when they were a more usual occurrence, typically included quotations and notes on material their author-collectors had read or heard; instead of hitting the ol’ Googs for that clever quip, you wrote it down when you encountered it and came back to your book for it later. Contemporary journaling practice isn’t so different from this, really, although a commonplace book doesn’t traditionally take on the diary activities that journaling requires; its original function is for collecting and keeping material to use later (often, per Locke, for rhetorical purposes), rather than writing out one’s thoughts about that information or about oneself.
The commonplace book — uniquely collected and arranged by its author, a work in itself of rhetorical preparation — is also quite different from the published assemblages of famous quotations, anecdotes, or toasts that have often formed the backbone of reference collections for speech preparation (and, lately, personal inspiration). Consider, for example, this little gem that (if I have my way) is probably going to leave my current employer’s collection at the end of our big reference weeding project this summer:
Unlike a commonplace book, in which the content is selected and curated by the book’s creator for that person’s own use and according to that person’s own needs, interests, reading choices, etc., books like this are intended (as the back cover copy tells us with breathless enthusiasm) as a combination “idea mine” and inspirational problem-solving resource. Where exploring one’s own commonplace book is (or can be) a marvelously personal process of introspection, texts like Peter’s Quotations feel a bit like reading someone else’s diary after all of the good bits have been redacted. The often informative and thought-provoking exercise of collecting and organizing material has already been done by someone else, and that someone else (probably prompted by a careful editor) has almost certainly tried to find some scheme for presenting generically appealing material in a generically appealing (and therefore unchallenging) way. This is dumbed-down reflection, sold as a cure-all. “Organized alphabetically by subject” and “cross-referenced by related categories”, Peter’s Quotations leaves little room for the innovation and continuous drawing of connections that grows organically and freely in a commonplace book built along Locke’s recommended lines.
Of course, among the most egregious of Peter’s sins is the book’s complete failure to source its included material in a way that will actually draw its reader to the original authors of those quotations the reader might find provocative or inspiring or useful. It denudes its content of context so completely as to make any “wisdom” present all the emptier. Its thoughtfully clear selection and organization trap the reader in a sort of anodyne garden of well-pruned prose, notwithstanding its empty promise of “outrageous wit.”
I leave the relation between Peter’s Quotations and the Peter Principle (and/or the Dunning-Kruger effect) as an exercise for the reader.
Every Easter, as devoted readers of this blog know, it is my regular ritual to tell a story. Not the Passover tale, oh no. Not the Resurrection. No, Easter on this blog is the occasion for the retelling of the Rabbit Horror of My Childhood. For the uninitiated, a quick click here will reveal the full, original version of the story. For those averse to clicking, the short version goes like so: When I was a very small child, my parents hid a GIANT inflatable Easter Bunny in a coat closet. When I unexpectedly opened that closet in search of hidden Easter eggs, the horrid thing jumped out and tackled me (it had been wedged in tightly against the coats — Dad was in a hurry). While my parents — who are lovely people, please don’t get me wrong — were naturally sympathetic to my horror and distress at being bum-rushed by a blow-up bunny, it was also undeniably the funniest thing they had seen all year. They reacted accordingly.
Of course, as I’ve been telling this story with some regularity for a few years now, my parents have decided that they need to get in on the act, reclaiming a bit of their own voice in the proceedings and taking a bit of the piss out of my retelling. My mother, for example, has developed a recurring gag using ever-larger greeting cards. Here is this year’s addition to the Ginormous Rabbit Card Collection, again pictured next to a terrier for scale:
Usually, Dad and I laugh a bit about the story (he laughs a bit harder than I do…) and think nothing more of it. He is not usually as…creative, I suppose, about the subtler forms of revenge humor as Mom is. Much of the grandparental energy nowadays, after all, is devoted to my wee nephew, who was the happy recipient of candy, glowy egg things (don’t ask), and gleeful, funny, noticeably little surprises from his elders this morning. Lucky little punk.
It was photos of said nephew, sent out to us all via The Magic of Social Media, that prompted Dad to remember that this year he had actually tried (and failed, thankfully) to find another giant inflatable bunny to send to me. He called me about an hour ago to tell me so, and we laughed and laughed and laughed…
As I was helping out a bit in the archives at work last week, I came across a familiar name in an unfamiliar context: the name of Lowell Mason, which (as it turns out) refers to two very different men who are a part the ongoing development of religious music in the United States.
The first Lowell Mason (the one with whom I was originally familiar) was the “father of American church music”, born in 1792 in Massachusetts. I’ve written a little about him here on the blog before — he was both a great composer and arranger of hymn tunes and a great advocate of the kind of formal musical education that ultimately aimed at killing off the informal, communal musical traditions of his time (the sort of music one learned in church-affiliated “singing schools” and song gatherings, often done using shape-note practice).* He was a great believer in music’s moral power, beyond its capacity for eliciting pleasure or intellectual and aesthetic appreciation.
The second Lowell Mason, with whom I was not familiar until this past week, is “Little Lowell” Mason, still-living southern gospel singer with a still-living mission as of this writing. He’s a very old man now (born c. 1937), but he still tours and sings; he was even in my former home town, Storm Lake, in 2014, although I never knew it at the time. While his size (Mr. Mason has dwarfism) was originally presented as a hook in promotional materials (he, like others, was presented as a “singing midget”, a term no longer preferred), it is mostly irrelevant to the deeper content of his musical ministry, which is quite different in tone and style from that of the composer whose name he shares. Where the Father of American Church Music was formal and lofty in his philosophical aspiration, the still-living singer is, in his way, a triumph of that earlier, participant-driven informal religious music tradition. His is a cheerfully popular style, the sort of music that demands tapping feet and clapping hands and singing along.
One wonders what the first Lowell would make of the music of the second; leaving aside the former’s likely disdain for the “sensuous” content of purely popular styles in general, both men nonetheless have in common a certainty that one reaches toward the divine through music, and if their forms of religious joy may look or sound different, they nonetheless seem to be aimed in the same spiritual direction.