Thursday, March 26, 2015

The scent of vinegar and the nature of documents

Introduction to Chapter 7 Reading the Background of Brown and Duguid's Social Life of Information (pg. 173-174):

"I was working in an archive of a 250-year-old business, reading correspondence form about the time of the American Revolution. Incoming letters were stored in wooden boxes about the size of a standard Styrofoam picnic cooler, each containing a fair portion of dust as old as the letters. As opening a letter triggered a brief asthma attack, I wore a scarf tied over my nose and mouth. Despite my bandit's attire, my nose ran, my eyes wept, and I coughed, wheezed, and snorted. I longed for a digital system that would hold the information from the letters and leave the paper and dust behind.

"One afternoon, another historian came to work on a similar box. He read barely a word. Instead, he picked out bundles of letters and, in a move that sent my sinuses into shock, ran each letter beneath his nose and took a deep breath, at times almost inhaling the letter itself but always getting a good dose of dust. Sometimes, after a particularly profound sniff, he would open the letter, glance at it briefly, make a note and move on.

"Choking behind my mask, I asked him what he was doing. he was, he told me, a medical historian. (A profession to avoid if you have asthma.) He was documenting outbreaks of cholera. When the disease occurred in a a town in the eighteenth century, all letters from that town were disinfected with vinegar to prevent the disease from spreading. By sniffing for the faint traces of vinegar that survived 250 years and noting the date and source of the letters, he as able to chart the progress of cholera outbreaks.

"His research threw new light on the letters that I was reading. Now cheery letters telling customers and creditors that all was well, business thriving, and the future rosy read a little differently if a whiff of vinegar came off the page. Then the correspondent's cheeriness might be an act to prevent a collapse of business confidence -- unaware that he or she would be betrayed by the scent of vinegar."

- Paul Duguid, Trip Report from Portual


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