The Prophet and the Archivist’s Nightmare: A Tale from the Weeds

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:

I have never in my life seen anyone fax a photo like that, but this book is certain that sending big, grainy photos in surprisingly high resolution is something that can and should be done with a fax machine.

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

Look familiar?

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:

Is it wrong that I now want a T-shirt with this on it?

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’s fax 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).

About L. M. Bernhardt

Deaccessioned philosopher. Occasional Musician. Academic librarian, in original dust jacket. Working to keep my dogs in the lavish manner to which they have become accustomed.
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