[supplied title]

what's in a format

Usually, when people highlight things they've come across in archives, they focus on content. Here I'm going to highlight a format.

In my first job as an archivist, I asked to get hands-on experience working with digital materials, but the collection I was processing didn't have any.1 So I found myself assisting on the processing of a massive collection that had a small amount of computer media. Most of that media consisted of floppy disks or CDs, and my task was to image them and determine the contents. There was already a well-established workflow set up for this and the process was uneventful, though I seem to remember there was a disk that couldn't be read. None of the content was interesting or unique, and pretty much all of it was also represented in paper.

Except there was one other (potentially) digital object that was a mystery: a strip or two (I can't remember) of magnetic tape with an IBM logo on it. The tape was unusual not just in format but in temporal origin. The collection consisted of the papers of a major political figure whose active career was essentially over by the 1990s. Every position he held was one where he either worked in a paper world (he was born over a decade before the first computers were built) or where computers were present but other people likely would have been the ones assigned to use them. All of the computer media in the collection, except the magnetic tape, was from after the 1980s. And pretty much all of it had accompanying material indicating that it was created by someone other than the politician: speeches he made that someone else transcribed, photos taken for digital portraits, a CD of documents someone else compiled.

The magnetic tape was from the 1970s, when the politician was still active in government. Contextual information suggested it contained notes from an interview with a journalist, most likely created by the journalist rather than by the politician. I can't remember if the interview had been published; I can remember that there was some hope that whatever was on the tape would be interesting, unlike the rest of the computer media.

Since we didn't have a tape reader, or even know what kind of tape we had, we needed to identity it first and then find an appropriate vendor. A few people had already looked at it and the best guess so far was that it was tape for an IBM mainframe. IBM has put a lot of their documentation online, so I looked up the specifications, measured the tape, and concluded it had to be something else. The width didn't match the tape types for any of the mainframe models I looked at, plus it wasn't clear how the tape strips would have been loaded into what looked like reel-based systems.

That got me thinking: why would a journalist in the 1970s and a politician without a close connection to the computer industry be working with tape for a mainframe? I'm sure I could imagine some espionage scenarios, but if the context was correct and the tape was related to an interview, wasn't it more likely that a different technology was involved? What equipment would have been in reach at the time that would have both worked on the scale of a personal meeting and stored its data in an IBM tape format?

So I did what anyone trained in historical methodologies would do: I watched "The Paperwork Explosion", a promotional film Jim Henson produced for IBM in 1967:

The star of that movie, besides the man on the farm who now spends most of his time thinking, is the IBM MT/ST, a form of typewriter that used magnetic tape. A check of the dimensions showed it was not the same magnetic tape format we had in the collection, but I felt like I was on the right track. Typewriters were at least personal office equipment in a way that mainframes were not. I would expect both journalists and politicians to have had regular access to them. That sent me down a path of looking at IBM office product catalogs and checking the tape-based equipment. None of the typewriters panned out.

There was one other technology in those catalogs that fit the social context: the audio recorder. It seemed so obvious in retrospect: is there anything more ordinary today than recording an interview? A few product name searches later and I was on someone's vintage technology website looking at the IBM 224 Dictating Unit. The tape pictured there is virtually identical to the tape in the collection.

I will admit not being entirely satisfied with an unofficial source, though I had no reason to doubt that page, so I looked for more official confirmation. I don't think I found a specification page for the IBM 2242, but I did find some advertisements in Duke's digitized advertisements collection. Would it count as official confirmation if the right kind of tape was visible in any of the ads? I decided that would be good enough for me. I set about watching them.

It should come as no surprise that the ads hit the same themes ("time", "think") as the Paperwork Explosion. The IBM 224 will save you, a working professional, from having to interrupt your day to write out memos and notes. Or if you're doing something where you can't stop and write, it will save you from having to rely on your memory until you can get back to your desk. Though the 224 weighed over a pound and was not in any real sense a "wearable", it's striking how much overlap there is between the scenarios IBM imagined for their market and contemporary pitches for wearable technologies.

These ads also capture and represent the gendered nature of the workplaces IBM saw as their market. Most of the usage scenarios they present start with "this man": "this man is working on a game plan"; "this man is going to court"; "this man used to be handcuffed by paperwork." Even one of the ads that includes a scenario where a woman uses the 224 to record her own words ("this woman used to spend hours taking stock of things") still ends on the tag line: "small and compact, this new dictating unit fits a man whose job is bigger than his office."

So what happens to your thoughts after you've recorded them? Don't they still have to get to text? The assumption, of course, is that you, the busy professional, have a secretary who will do that. This is left unsaid in most of the ads, but one makes implicit reference to this work. This is also the moment where the tape itself appears on screen.

At the 35 second mark below, you can see what I assume to be an executive place a strip of tape on his secretary's desk while the narrator intones: "While you're using it [the IBM 224] to clear your desk of letters, memos, reports; or to put thoughts and ideas in order, your secretary handles other work for you. She's free to do a better job, and so are you."

This is also the ad that reaches the furthest beyond the office, promising that the new dictating unit will help restore your work-life balance, symbolized by a man flying a kite with his son, as the man himself once did when he was a child. Who knew a tape format could do all that?

At this point you might be wondering, what was on that politician's tape? After finding these ads, I felt like I'd done all the format research I could given the state of my expertise, and it seemed like I'd gotten close enough to refer it to an audio specialist. So I sent some of my links to the archivists in charge of the whole collection, who would be the ones to contact a vendor.

I changed jobs not too long after that, and maybe a year or so later I ran into one of my former colleagues at a conference and asked them if they knew what happened with the tape. It was sent out to a specialist who apparently recognized it without having to go through the IBM back catalog. I'm not sure if it was really tape for the IBM 224 or for some other model, but it was audio and they tried to read it. They weren't able to recover the content.

  1. There were signs of digital format records in the collection I was processing in the form of data analysis and help screen printouts from the 1980s, but either the donor didn't keep any of the computer media or it didn't make it through appraisal. The collection did have a huge amount of AV. 

  2. Did I mention that I did all of this over a period of a few hours sometime in 2013 or 2014? I have not re-done the research to look for new sources.