Adding Machines and Libraries

I am old enough to remember when one could make a living selling something called an “adding machine.” It was fairly large but fit nicely on a desk and had numerical keys on its face (as one might expect). A roll of white paper sat on the top of it, the better to show the process by which one added, subtracted, multiplied and divided their way to the bottom line. Accountants, insurance agents, automobile salesmen, and other incredibly interesting people would punch numbers which would then with great noisy and crunchy fanfare be printed on a page to show how the potential victim on the other side of the desk how one arrived at this or that figure for this or that good or service. The father of a friend of mine, a quiet, somewhat bookish fellow (the father, not the friend) was employed by Honeywell or some such company and went around his region selling such items and supported his family by doing so until something called a “calculator” took over the world.  You can still buy adding machine paper rolls, and for a bit more than the price of the rolls, something called a “printing calculator” with a digital face and a fairly quiet printing process but nobody is making a living by selling the things. In prosperous times, actually, banks give them away to new customers. I felt badly for my friend’s father; it seemed to me — then and now — that he deserved better.

I remembered my friend, his dad, and adding machines (as well as telephone booths, hat stores in every major city, and a blacksmith or two in every town) when I came upon an article about a new library that doesn’t have books. The library is on the campus of Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, Florida. There are comfy chairs and nice lighting, and the like, and a resource desk with helpful…librarians?…but no books. I didn’t read about this in The Onion, unfortunately; it’s apparently a legitimate article from Yahoo! about a real place and you can read about it here. I probably should not have been surprised; my younger daughter went through her entire high school career without cracking open a textbook, since all of her study materials were online. That a college should take things a reverse step further, or backward, is not surprising, though interestingly enough the individual courses offered at the university in question generally require textbooks.

I get it, kind of. Research and reference books these days are of temporary value at best. The more we learn the less we know. Today’s conventional wisdom is all too often obsolete tomorrow. It makes no sense to replace a reference book every year or three (the Physician’s Desk Reference comes to mind) when it is available as a phone app that is updated more or less constantly. But. But. If we’re at the stage where a library doesn’t need books, why do we need a resource desk? Why do we need a librarian, when we can just pull our phones out and ask Siri?
This may be the first step in a trend, and there are advantages to it, but it doesn’t mean that it is good. I made one of my earliest contacts with an adult to whom I was not related) at a library. Mrs. Helen McBride, a librarian at the Lane Avenue Shopping Center branch of the Upper Arlington, Ohio Public Library, was one of the first grownups I can remember who was a friend to me in my somewhat lonely, very bookish early childhood. She actually took me seriously (which may or may not have been a good thing) and listened to me no matter how busy she was. I learned about an entire universe of books the day that she took me by the hand and led me in between some bookshelves and showed me row upon row upon row of mystery novels. My six year old self resolved to read every book on every shelf. I’m still working on it, even as I’ve contributed, here and there, to adding to the volumes on those shelves. Is that over, or close to being over now for kids and adults alike? I would hope not. I’d like to think that there is still a place in the world for the Helen McBrides who would take the time to open up new worlds to a bespeckled fat kid wandering into the library by accident or design. Alas, it may not be long before there is no “in” to wander into any more. It will reside in the same place that adding machine does.

Please read the article that was the saddle for my high horse (if you missed the link above, you can find it here) and tell me: do you think that this is where we are headed? Is this a good thing? Or not? Why? 

How My Daughter Became an International Multi-Media Internet Superstar Overnight

We have had a bit of excitement at casa de Hartlaub since my last post. The seed of that excitement was planted several years ago — more on that in a bit — and sprouted in March of this year. Annalisa, my sixteen year old daughter, attends The Ohio State University and during the winter-spring semester took an Intro to Photography class as a bit of a respite from her biology lectures, lab courses, and her work on a pediatric oncology research team. The photography class, taught by the informative and entertaining Shane McGeehan with lectures by Aspen Mays, required the submission of a number of projects. Annalisa fulfilled one of them by photographing a series of portraits of herself representing mainstream and counterculture fashions for each of the past ten decades. She turned the project in, earned an ‘A,’ and posted the project to her Flickr account at the beginning of April.

Strange things began to happen within a couple of weeks. Annalisa’s hit numbers, after growing steadily but modestly at first, inexplicably and suddenly began to jump exponentially, day by day, from 10,000 to 20,000 to 60,000 and so on. Will Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation, re-blogged her page, which was a particular thrill for Annalisa, given that she had a crush on him in those heady days when she was four years old. Hank Green, who is a major YouTube player contributor, did as well. This was exciting enough; the tipping point, however, occurred on April 2, when Annalisa got an email from Sara Roncero-Menendez of The Huffington Post, asking for permission to use the portraits in an article about Annalisa and the project. The answer of course was yes. And we waited.

We had no idea what would happen next. The articleappeared on April 29. The story was picked up by Buzzfeed, Independent Journal Review, Yahoo!, and then by news sites based in Vietnam, Italy, Mumbai, France, and England, among others. A young man in Turkey put together a music video featuring the portraits and a Pentatonix track. And it’s still expanding, even as I sit here typing. This, it has been explained to me, is what as “going viral.” It was never Annalisa’s intent to do so; she just wanted to create the best project she could, and then share it with her friends. Indeed.

So what does all of this have to do with you? Ah. The short version is “(M)y daughter did a class photography project and it went viral.” Here is the long version, tacked onto the beginning of what I have set forth above: Annalisa conceived of the project; spent hours turning her room into a portrait studio; spent days looking at old photographs; experimented with makeup, lighting, and shading; and took hundreds of shots before she got the ones she wanted. What everyone is seeing is but the tail end — and the relatively short end — of all of that work. That’s true of any work of art, be it your favorite book of the week, the new Parquet Courts CD, or TrueDetective; you’re getting the end result, not the weeks and months and yeah, in some cases years of work and failure and self-doubt that comprised the gestation period which ultimately resulted in the finished masterpiece being pushed out into the marketplace. You can read all of James Bell’s columns that you want, and follow that advice to the letter, but —and Jim would be the first to tell you this — you’re not going to squeeze out your masterpiece, best- selling or otherwise, viral or otherwise, in an hour or a few days or even a few weeks. You’re going to write and erase and edit and write some more and lay awake and forget about the butler (as Raymond Chandler so famously did) and erase it all and start all over until, as Will Wheaton’s boss was so fond of saying, you “make it so.”

The title of this piece notwithstanding, overnight success doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the end result of many nights, and days, and weeks of work. For Annalisa, it probably started when she was three years old, and for whatever reason during dinner began taking pictures of her food after each bite, as her parents watched with amusement and dinnertimes extended for two hours. It was worth every minute then, and still is.