Looking Back

Trusting Computers Over Paper

papertoelectronicIt wasn’t that long ago that people were having problems converting from paper to computer for reading and writing.  Even still today people love paper – it’s more tangible, and often easier on the eyes.  Although print newspapers are online nowadays, they still roll out their paper versions (although admittedly probably with lower circulation).  I must say I dread the day when newspapers are truly extinct.  It just seems to weird.  However, it’s fun to look back on what people thought of the transition back in the day.

Anyone who thinks that computers reduce paper usage should check with banks offering automatic teller machines. It seems as if the term “paperless transaction” has proven to be an oxymoron. My spouse works for a large high tech corporation, where one division of the company receives a delivery of three semi-tractor trailers of computer paper weekly, and fills is up the same number each week with used paper. At least they are recycling, but it still seems a waste.

In addition to several e-mail services that I check daily, I subscribe to the PACS-L forum on BITNET, which provides me with a wealth of interesting topics, issues and people contacts – usually averaging eight to 12 messages a day. At first I was delighted with my new information resource, then dismayed as I realized how much I was saving (at the risk of filling up my hard disk) and often printing. I had to fight the urge to send the downloaded file to my printer and then file that piece of paper in a folder, where of course the access is thumb-through-the-pile, the original random access method. I also learned some restraint in what I decided to save.

It reminds me of my days as an academic reference librarian. I watched students search diligently and pull out armloads of periodicals with articles on their topics. But, rather than sit down and read what they’d found, think about it, analyze it or write anything, they would line up at the photocopier to make a paper print. They showed a rather desperate need to have it down on paper – something they could take with them. If it was on paper, then it was real. I’ve seen older people, struggling to adapt to the computers forced on them, show a similar distrust. It can’t just be “in the computer” – it has to be printed to be real.


I think I have now learned to trust the electronic text – at least partially. I use the text find-it program Gofer on my Macintosh to hunt through my logged files for the needed information. The search capabilities are crude, when compared to other search software I’m accustomed to, but I usually manage to find that half-remembered morsel buried in the bits and bytes on my hard disk – my hard disk aptly named “database.”

But there is a nagging little concern in the back of my mind. What if I’m not finding everything I should? How would I even know, short of actually paging through 20 megabytes of text? Printing out those files won’t really help my access. Will more sophisticated text search and retrieval or text management software ease my concern? – probably. Will we ever really trust electronic text? But wait, why is that different from bits of information being “lost” in traditional print sources? Retrieval from print is only as good as the indexing available, whether back of the book, or the card catalog or the OPAC. In fact, my electronic texts can be searched much more flexibly and from many more access points.


QUESTIONS Thinking about paper and text and capabilities of software has raised a number of questions in my mind – no answers, just items to ponder. Readers are welcome to comment.

* Does the way we search and find text influence our comprehension of it?

* Will writing ultimately be affected by knowing how text is located? For example, with KWIC searching, someone might not see the entire text, only a window into it. Should each paragraph then be constructed carefully so that someone who didn’t see the surrounding paragraphs wouldn’t be misled?

* Sophisticated software exists for building in filters, to choose, organize and refine the text automatically that reaches us – will we retain this control at a local level, so that no one else is choosing for us the text we will access?

* When handwriting can be readily scanned and digitally recognized, will we leap over that paper copy hurdle to the electronic version of that signature as real, thus eliminating reams of required paperwork?

* Will larger hard disks and other storage media remove the space stumbling block that some have for saving and accessing electronic files? One colleague says if she has to remove files from her hard disk and store them on floppies, she loses the convenience and would rather have it on paper. I would still rather search multiple disks for electronic text than shuffle through inadequately accessible paper copies.

Hane, Paula. “Paper: the security blanket of the electronic age.” Database Feb. 1991: