The front page of the New York Times for Monday, February 2, 2015 carried a story titled, “Fire at Brooklyn Warehouse Puts Lives’ Detritus on Display.” The article caught my eye for several reasons. A huge, aged warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront that had been used as a site to store paper files belonging to a variety of local and regional governmental agencies that included courts and hospitals, burned in a mighty conflagration. Pieces of paper, bits of records, were blown into the sky by the fire and littered the surrounding neighborhood and shoreline. At first authorities were not overly concerned. What could be stored on paper that would be so important? Then people began to notice that the scorched pages had individuals’ names and social security numbers, medical test results and other highly personal information. Eventually the area was blocked off and crews came in to collect the material but much had been snatched away.
What a fine example of the transition from print to digital information! Though 2015 is set squarely in the new age of information where cloud computing equates to infinite storage capacity and Google has rendered indexes dusty oddities, the past dogs the present. How many of us have seen overstuffed files, bursting boxes and crowded shelves. Stuck away in a hallway, a closet or exiled in a storage area? Only real application of human effort could control the roiling paper rivers of the 20th Century. Not that most institutions ever did a very adequate job of storing and tracking old files, but at least an effort was made. Today digital information is reality, paper files are shining artifacts of the past. Many of the agencies whose files floated on drafts of smoke out on to city streets were unable to say exactly what had been stored in the warehouse. Some claimed to be in the midst of digitization projects but were unsure of how far along the projects might be. Much like the powerful image at the end of Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom (1984), where the precious Ark of the Covenant is hidden in plain sight by being placed in the midst of rows and rows of storage boxes, lost through it submergence in the banality of mass unlabeled aisles, paper information is put away to be left away..
The public view of information is a single photograph, taken today by an iPhone perhaps. That picture shows a limitless view of information and its retrieval. None of the baggage of the paper past is part of it. The paper has been sent away.
Abandoning the past is a dangerous enterprise. Neil Postman once said that soon history will not run any further back than events that were recorded on film, because to be real, an event must be observed, not read about. He may be right, but that world will hold great peril. Paper, unless set on fire or mishandled in some other way, lasts. Not forever, but even poorly made paper can be supported. In the digital world, despite laudable efforts like the Way Back Machine that attempts to record the Internet, information surges forward.
The scorched documents from the Brooklyn warehouse stand as a symbol to warn all information organizations, by which I mean libraries, to hold on to the past even as we embrace the present. Librarians have long fought to save items that no one else valued. Perhaps in 2015 that might mean all paper based information. The future should build on the past, not leave it behind. Stand firm, librarians always have.