The Library of Congress dusts off the tech of barely yesteryear

April 22, 2012

The librarians of the nation kick off Preservation Week today, the Holy Week for collection specialists, a time of dusty tomes and deacidification spray and the other niche materials used to preserve the great documents of our country: our presidential papers and Lincoln Bibles and notes handwritten by Emily Dickinson.

But for now, let us talk about Rise of the Dragon.

Rise of the Dragon was a video game released in 1990. It is about a private detective who sets off to find the drug kingpin responsible for the death of the mayor’s daughter. It came on a stack of six-inch floppy disks, which meant that it was played on a belligerent, boxy computer, a pile of tan plastic with a bubble screen and keys that got gummy and grimy and needed a Q-Tip.

Rise of the Dragon was designed to be played on precisely the machine that you finally sold at that garage sale nine years ago. No right-thinking person would still own this game.

The Library of Congress owns it.

“As you can see, we have the first 25 and the last 25 pages of [the game’s] source code, too,” says Greg Lukow, the chief of the library’s motion picture and sound division. He is proud of the library’s collection, which includes not only Rise of the Dragon, but also “Dexter,” “American Reunion” (the new “American Pie”; don’t pretend you don’t know), the home movies of nobody citizens, cached and abandoned Web pages, and defunct technologies.

Let us honor the preservation of the mix tape. Let us explore not who we were a long time ago, but who we were just yesterday, through the Library of Congress — the archaeologists of our recent history, of our impending obsolescence.

‘I worry about this’

Books have worked the same way, more or less, for centuries. They are a remarkably intuitive technology. Open, read, close. “Or if you have a photo album, you know exactly what that is,” says Bill LeFurgy, who works for the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the library. “It’s self-evident. It’s self-describing.”

Now consider the disc, compact or floppy. The disc is not intuitive. The disc may contain photographs, but the disc will not show them to you unless you know how to open it — which, as everyone relocates to the Cloud, will become an increasingly antique skill. In 75 years, the disc will be modern civilization’s hieroglyph; the Rosetta Stone will be the yellowed user manual of an Apple IIe.

While books have endured unchanged, other forms of technology have bred with the speed of invertebrate insects, multiple generations each decade: 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, flash drives, Google docs, Pinterest boards — old things abandoned for new things in increasingly short life cycles.

“I worry about this,” LeFurgy says. “I worry about things being thrown away.” He worries about the specks of dust that could get in crevices and render unusable the temperamental floppy. He worries about the documents saved on WordStar, the pre-Microsoft Word word processing system.

All of this worry coincides (appropriately, ironically) with the rise of self-curation — our Instagrammed era in which every meal, photo, event and thought is hashtagged and filed away with a virtual Sharpie. But for all of the organizational skills that Pinterest has bestowed upon us, we are remarkably unconcerned with how accessible our virtual collections will be to our progeny.

“Corporations,” LeFurgy notes dryly, “are not in the forever business.”

Technology companies and Web sites are guided by profitability, not historic duty. They move with the times and shut down when they must. It might be easier to access Granny’s 80-year-old diaries than it is to access your now-defunct Friendster profile; it may be more possible to recover sound from a wax cylinder than from a digital audio tape circa 1987.

It turns out that we modern humans are not actually good at curation. What we are good at is short-term hoarding. We tag and tag with disappearing ink. For the generations hence, and the advanced, beam-me-up technology they are sure to have, we would be completely inscrutable, Generation Disposable.

Collection of creativity

Take Route 66, for miles and miles, then turn off on 29 South, past the dairy stands and fruit stands and churches advertising “11: a.m. Cowboy Services.” Eventually you’ll come to a giant structure built into the side of a hill that looks like it was originally a Cold War bunker, because that’s what it was. This is the library’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation. It’s where the country stores priceless artifacts, like Thomas Edison’s 19th-century films. It is also where the country stores “General Hospital” on VHS, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” on digital cinema package, and hundreds of thousands of other historical files, like the personal collection of J. Fred MacDonald, a Chicago man who built an extraordinary repertoire of industrial and educational films.

“What we have here,” Lukow says, “is a mint collection of American creativity.”

Lukow is broad and very tall. He looks and sounds the slightest bit like John Lithgow. He’s in charge of the collections out here, of the petabytes of information lurking underground, in vaults climate-controlled to 50 degrees.

On a recent afternoon, he led a private tour through the vaults, and up and down the go-for-miles hallways populating the building. He leads through the visual department, with giant bins full of media that pour in every week either from private collectors or through the Copyright Deposit System. He leads through soundproofed studios, where the library stocks dozens of needles of varying thicknesses to better play old records.

In a dim, jammed room that everyone calls “the museum,” the library stores shelf after shelf of recently obsolete technology: stacks of CD players, cassette players, Sony VCRs.

“These are about the most valuable things in here,” Lukow says as he points to a row of hard cases tucked just above eye level. They contain two-inch video heads, used for playing back media. Nobody makes them anymore, and there are only two well-known facilities in the country left that repair them.

Across the hall from the museum, two technicians monitor troops of robot-machines as they digitize hours, yards, miles of content. Tiny screens display the activity. Here are the Boston Red Sox circa 1999, next to a late-era Johnny Carson. Here is Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin on a 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live.

“Oh, we’re on ‘Silver Spoons’ now!” A technician peers at the screen closest to him. This is excellent news. “We’ve been on ‘All My Children’ for weeks.”

Merits of preservation

Maybe preservation is overrated, really, if what we’re preserving is the rise and fall of Susan Lucci’s hair, the never-ending “American Pie” franchise, the extemporaneous Twitter feed (yes, the library saves those, too).

Those of us who live in this time are cognizant enough to be frequently embarrassed about this time. No one looks forward to the day when she may curl up with her granddaughter and a remote control, and say, “Let’s watch the hero of my youth, Snooki.”

One of the benefits of a disposable culture is that we can dispose of it, brush it all up with a Swiffer, lose it with our latest upgrade. The term papers that went missing with your ancient Dell weren’t good anyway — the only thing they would reveal to later generations was that students have never understood the difference between “affect” and “effect.” Let it rot, leave it be, allow us to forget cultural behaviors that haunt us.

But then, our recent past it not any trashier than the pop culture of more distant pasts; the difference is that much of that trash ended up in the garbage. There is meaning in the gleaming blond of Ricky Schroder’s hair; we’re just not far enough away to understand it yet, and by the time we are, the tape will have disintegrated.

Maybe the archeologists of the near future will be able to sift through our floppies, our flash drives. Maybe they will sit down for hours and master all of the levels of Rise of the Dragon, and hidden in the source code will be all of the secrets of humanity, and we will completely understand who we once were.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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