Saturday, 17 September 2022

The end of cursive and the end of history ...

 I've just tweeted a link to an article  from the Atlantic bemoaning how, in the USA at least, university students can't read cursive handwriting

That gave me some pause. A generation who can't read cursive?

More importantly a generation to whom notes are written on a phone, an iPad, or a laptop, something that makes them automatically ephemeral, just as emails are fundamentally ephemeral.

In fact all electronic records are ephemeral. 

Having spent a good few years of my life dealing with digital archiving of data, code, software, digitised data etc, I can tell you that digital records are ephemeral. 

Left to themselves they die. The hardware they are stored on fails. The format of the files can no longer be read. The storage  media is out of date and can no longer be read by modern devices. All these things.

Left to themselves digital doesn't last, and it takes considerable effort to make it last in terms of personnel, equipment and cash.

So, we face a world in which there will be no records, well other than the official ones that someone at the time thought worth preserving, and other people have continued to think worth preserving.

We face a world with no diary entries, no notes about off the record conversations, no letters between friends and lovers, no trial transcripts, nothing.

All gone.

And we will be impoverished for that.

And it's not as unlikely as it sounds.

Shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a Kuwaiti refugee turned up at the university computer centre I was working at. He had heard that we offered a best efforts data recovery and conversion service, and he had this very battered DAT tape that contained a backup of his work that had been stored on a server in Kuwait University.

The Iraqis had been going to steal the server, but when they got it outside, they decided to use it for target practice. End of server.

Fortunately tape turned out to be readable and in a fairly standard format and we got most of the man's data and paper drafts back for him. If we hadn't, he'd have lost it all.

Most hardware failures are not so dramatic, but the consequences would be the same - any content management solution represents a single point of failure - and in my experience most in house solutions are exactly that - despite paying lip service to resilience in practice there is never enough funding to do more than a periodic backup. 

Paper is different. 

Paper records tend to survive, It's difficult to burn large quantities of paper tightly packed together. Likewise, tightly packed together they'll survive a soaking. 

This is why we know (among other things) about the Nazi atrocities in eastern Europe. Consummate bureaucrats  they filed paperwork and reports meticulously until the very end, meaning there was simply too much to be destroyed. If they'd used a content management system there's a lot that we simply wouldn't know.

Now I'm not saying we shouldn't digitise records. I for one enjoy working with digitised sources, and without them would not have been able to have done my family history stuff, and I do get a buzz from reading 250 year old parish records while sitting at my desk on the other side of the planet, and almost as far away from the records original location as possible. 

However, let's be clear, digitisation is not the same as preservation - without measures to ensure resilience and continuity, at best it's a method to widen access. 

As for an inability to read cursive? I'm less worried about that - people can learn.

I know this from personal experience as I did a short course on eighteenth century Scottish handwriting during the first year of the pandemic to better read church registers and records when, during lockdown, I turned to family history to keep my brain active.

Just as when, all these years ago, I learned some Russian and learned to read and write Russian cursive script. 

And a few years ago, in the middle of frenzied traffic in roadworks at  a Greek freeway intersection I made an important discovery, I'd assumed J could read Greek road signs because she could read Byzantine text on mosaics etc,

At a critical moment while trying to work out what exit lane we should be in, I discovered that while art history had given her the ability to read upper case Byzantine inscriptions,  J couldn't read lower case Greek letters meaning she couldn't read a temporary diversion sign that was only in Greek, but then, hey,  it was Greece and abrupt changes of lane are the norm ...

It's just simply a case of no longer assuming familiarity with cursive script and making the ability to do so a prerequisite ...

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