Monday, September 12, 2011

Old School

The other day, Teelay and I made a run to the local library. It's a pretty fantastic place. A couple of years ago, they remodeled things, so now it's mostly a self-checkout setup, unless there's some kind of glitch with a bar code or something. You drop your library card into a little slot and up comes a screen on a monitor asking for your "pin" number. You also have to declare if you want the instructions in English or not. Once that's done, it tells you to place three books/items on the flat surface where some invisible scanner reads the book titles. The titles are listed on the monitor and turn green once they pass inspection. You repeat the process until all your items are swooped. Then it asks if you want a print out of the items or not. You can also pay any overdue fees with this machine.

Eons ago, when checking out a book from the county or school libraries, the procedure was quite different. Tightly glued to the reverse side of the front cover was a little envelope-type thing. Inside the little envelope was a "check out" card, about the size of a recipe card, with lines on it. You took the book to the librarian and told her who you were. She took the card out of the envelope and stamped the date on it. Then you put your signature on the appropriate line and knew you had two weeks from that date to return it.

Both systems work and I don't mean to criticize either. There was, however, something wonderful and personal about pulling out that little card and adding your signature before it went on file. It's a tad ironic to me that we go to a library which only carries items meant to communicate, yet never communicate with an actual library employee, just Ms. Machine. I understand the cost-saving issues and even the possible time-saving issues, and really love the way you can renew your items by phone or online rather than having to drag them all back and forth, but it was a little more wonderful when someone smiled at you on your way out.

A few more things that have become retro are:

Handle-wound pencil sharpeners. Mostly now they have the electric kind. You jab your pencil in and pull it back out in less than two seconds. With the old kind, you turned the handle on the wall-mounted sharpener several times. It seemed so much more satisfying. What I've noticed is that both types have the same downside; certain operators empty the shavings into the garbage on a regular basis even if they've only used it once that week and certain other operators find that effort beneath themselves.

Typewriters used to be manual. To you youngins, that means they weren't plugged into an electric socket, nor did they have batteries; you were on your own. The "keys" back then were not the same type (pun intended) as the keys we use now. They were striker keys, more like how a pianist plays the keys which hit some other gizmo which causes the sound (that's the best description a non-piano player can do). These typewriters weren't attached to printers. You rolled a sheet of paper in the top and turned a knob on the side, feeding the paper into the proper position. The keys would strike a fabric ribbon, which was pressed against the paper. If the words weren't showing up very well, it was time to get a new ribbon. You had to clean off the key strikers now and then or they would smudge, especially letters like b, d, q, those with open parts. You set the margins by hand with a little sliding thing and when it reached close to the right side margin, you would hear a little "ping", letting you know you had maybe 4-5 more letters before it froze up. That meant you had to manually slide the big lever attached to the roller on the left, placing it at the left margin before you could type a new line.

I hadn't used a typewriter for many years and had occasion to use one for work one time on a marriage license. Good grief. You have to deliberately PUNCH each key down to make it work. I felt like a wimp. My favorite typewriter in high school was the IBM Selectric. It had a little interchangeable ball that had all the letters etc on it. Instead of needing keys to strike, this little ball zipped around and did that work. We thought it was near-magical. We had no correction tape, no delete, edit, move, cut, copy, or paste options. There were two kinds of fonts (pica and some other kind) and you had to physically change out the ball to change the font.

Before Xerox or Whiteout came along, we had duplicating machines. These had a container of rubbing alcohol attached to the top, upside down, so it could somehow blend with the carbon paper and make copies. This is not the same carbon paper as kids use to make images. This was the kind with the white front and purple back. If you had a typo, you had to unroll the paper, making sure it didn't slip or come all the way out, use a razor to scrape off the typo, roll it back in and make the best repair you could. At BYU we had a mimeograph machine that was a royal mess to use. You put some tar-like ink on top of the master and rolled it over the pages. It's benefit was that you could print thousands of copies from the mimeograph while you could only get a couple hundred out of the carbon kind. No electric staplers or sorters either, just staff members. The help button in our high school typing class was Mrs. Frederickson, the teacher.

This little ditty, The Typewriter Song, might give you some idea of how it was, though there was no cheery little music playing along in the background:

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