Letters, Data and Metadata…

Considering how annoying I find The Social Life of Information (again – more on that later), it’s surprising how often I feel that I should be posting some of the nuggets contained within it for a larger audience. Anyway, there’s a really interesting quote in the book from Paul Duguid’s trip report from Portugal which I think is pertinent to my other post (A fragment of a world full of metadata) on the vast amounts of metadata that the real world supplies us with around the edges of the ostensible ‘content’. But then again – as I say – I find much of the book so aggravating that I’m not sure quoting a chunk of it to support one of my positions is a particularly inspired idea.

I was working in an archive of a 250-year-old business, reading correspondence from 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 asthmatic 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 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 that disease occurred in 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 was able to chart the progress of the cholera outbreaks.

His research threw new light on the letters I was reading. Now cheery letters telling customers 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 businss confidence – unaware that he or she would be betrayed by a scent of vinagar. (Chapter 7 p.173)

2 replies on “Letters, Data and Metadata…”

Some very interesting comments and an extended essay from Tom Coates (a web producer specialising in print-to-web transitions, social software and personal publishing on the web). His excellent blog has the following posts: Letters, Data and Metadata A…

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