Saturday, May 8, 2010

Datebooks and Diaries

Here's an interesting article from Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times. It concerns datebooks and diaries and how these are disappearing in favor of electronic calendars like Apple's iCal, Google Calendar or other such systems. Here at work we used to have something called "Meeting Maker" and then morphed to something else called "UMCal" and rumor has it we may be moving at some time in the near future to Google Calendar (which makes sense since we seem to be transforming ourselves into the Northern Midwest campus of Google University; we're doing Google Books, we'll soon be doing Google Calendar and GMail; and before long--in my more cynical moments--I'm sure Google will be "doing" us.)

No more Google bashing for the moment. I use and like many of their products. I just have this sense that in some strange way we're selling our soul and losing our memory.

Which brings me back to datebooks and diaries and why I started this post in the first place. Notice the last few sentences of Heffernan's article: "But now that I’ve shelved my Filofax in favor of a calendar program that seems somehow to flatten existence, I realize that another year is passing without my building up the compact book of a year’s worth of Filofax pages that, every December, I used to wrap in a rubber band and put on a shelf, just as my new refills came in the mail. Nobody is grieving. Well, I’m grieving now, Baker. You never know what you’re going to miss." She is, in some ways, talking about an archive of her past. And what we need to realize, and confront, is that we still don't have (to my mind) a safe and secure way of archiving electronic calendars and diaries.

This fact has raised its ugly head more than once at work. I've wanted to go back and check some past event or confirm some meeting or conversation. But I can't do it. When the University moved from Meeting Maker to UMCal all that information was lost or disappeared into some black hole. If I go back in time on my UMCal all I see are lots of empty spaces on a vacant calendar. None of the Meeting Maker information was migrated to the new system. And what will happen when we make the transition from UMCal to Google Calendar? Will they migrate all of my UMCal information to the new system? I doubt it. I doubt it very much. So if I'm going to want to keep a record of my past (as UMCal defines it), I'm going to have to print off my calendar pages for each month and file them away as a paper archive. Its the only option I've got (besides, maybe, printing a second copy electronically in pdf and parking that copy on multiple hard drives).

Are we grieving the loss? Will this continuation of the poverty of the post-modern historical record come back to haunt us or those who come after us? How many disservices are we doing to future researchers? I think we're going to present them with a huge mess that will be difficult, if not impossible, to fathom. And we'll be poorer for it.

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