Monday Marvels

Sometimes working with documents from the past can give you a deeper understanding of today’s world, allowing you to see how certain terms originated or how specific types of work have changed over time. Such is the case with the documents I chose for this week’s Monday Marvels entry.

In English (and surely this is true in other languages, as well), we often use words and phrases that originated decades or years before they evolved into their current meaning. That’s right: language evolves! You can see a recent example of language evolution in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of literally, which now includes the following:

c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’

…which was not in the 1989 second edition. That’s right, ‘literally’ now literally also means ‘virtually.’ Who would’ve thought?

We also use a lot of words, phrases, and images that originated out of now-antiquated actions, tasks, or objects. This is especially true in the world of computing. When you’re writing a document in Microsoft Word, how do you save it? You might hit Ctrl+S, but you could just as easily click on the “save” icon. What does that icon represent? A floppy disk, of course!

Floppy disks - photo by George Chernilevsky via WikipediaFloppy disks – photo by George Chernilevsky via Wikipedia

Looks familiar, right? It pains me to think that some of you reading this might never have had to actually use a floppy disk to save your work – most of us who were alive and using computers in the ’90s probably still have a few of these (or boxes of them!) laying around at home, waiting to be rediscovered.*

How does this all tie in with the ACLS collection?

Surely you’ve used the phrases “cut and paste” or “copy and paste” while working with word documents. It seems obvious, but the reason we use these phrases is that people actually used to cut (or copy and cut) up documents and paste (or staple) them back together in a new order while editing. I’ve found this in the ACLS collection in a number of folders, and wanted to share one with you:

Text was cut up and physically rearranged during the editing process before computers.

This document is a great example of how archival collections allow us to see the evolution of a document: from the beginning stages through the editing process and finally on to the finished product. This is immensely helpful to researchers, and I fear it is largely being lost in the age of computers where a simple keystroke can replace one edit with another without providing any documentation whatsoever of the changes that have taken place. Food for thought: if you expect to send your papers on to an archival repository someday, please think about saving drafts as well as final versions!

As an added bonus, here is an example from the ACLS collection of how people sometimes used to put footnotes into their work:

A pre-computer age footnote.

Beautiful, right? I’m a big lover of footnotes in general (cite your sources!), having spent so much time writing papers in the Chicago Manual of Style format – so I loved finding this in the collection.

Have a great week, everyone! Enjoy your archives!


* I hesitate to go into the details of personal archiving and the fragility inherent in electronic documents (both in terms of physical storage and format) because that’s not even just another can of worms; it’s a whole world of them. I’ll post about electronic records at some point in the future, but know this: if you still have old important documents on outdated media (floppy disks, for example) and you know you will need or want to access them at some point in the near or far future, you’ll want to transfer them as soon as possible, assuming they can even be opened and read at this point.


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