Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The_Lex v. The Wisconsin Historical Society: Weekend Two

This looks pretty advanced compared to what I was using

Took another trip to The Wisconsin Historical Society this past weekend. This time, I reserved a Zipcar, drove up Saturday morning, studied all day then drove back after a Nepalese dinner. Proved more efficient, more affordable and heck, even more fun as I got to listen to my iPod over car speakers.

Even after the $10 in tolls, $5 max per day parking fee at State Street Campus Ramp and mileage costs, the Zipcar route ended up more affordable than the bus and hotel route. Top that off with driving a hybrid Honda Civic that averaged 40 mpg even on the highway, I think I did quite well, even by environmental standards.

I decided to take the trip spontaneously. The last weekend I went felt kind of disappointing. Not only did I not find anything that felt useful, I didn't even finish looking at everything, just a bunch of letters with really bad handwriting. Leaving, I planned to come back some day. . .when I budgeted for it.

Come the past Friday, though, and I hankered to get back up there. All week I had been studying the books in my home library on the topic of Brook Farm, George Ripley and the controversy between the old school Boston Unitarians and The Transcendentalists. I had first gone up to The Historical Society to find a source that would shed a light on Ripley's inspiration to start Brook Farm. By Friday, I hadn't found the answer to that question at home, either. The compulsion to do more research at The Historical Society had dug its feet into my attention, and it wouldn't go away until I scratched the itch.

I get crazy like that.

During the five hours at The Historical Society, I spent them all in the microfilm room, reading those damned letters with bad handwriting.

First off, I want to thank JohnnyHank for the tip about using the microfilm machine from the last entry. The ability to move the part that holds the microfilm, the lense and the light helped a ton.

Since Ripley occasionally wrote upside down, sideways and whichever way he desired to end his letters back on the first page, rotating the view could prove valuable. Sure, whoever made the microfilm would put another copy of the first page at the end of the letter, this time upside down or sideways. Reading the upside down stuff out of order had its uses, nonetheless, especially when trying to find my place on the microfilm when I first arrived at The Historical Society.

The biggest benefit from JohnnyHank's tip was that he got me to question what I knew about the microfilm machine. When you don't know much, questioning what you know has its benefits.

Last entry, I wrote in the comments that I thought I was projecting the wrong side of the microfilm until I put it through the machine in reverse. At that point, I realized the text was printed on the microfilm at a 90 degree angle, and I thought that was the only issue.

Boy, was I wrong. The text was on the right side of the microfilm, but I had loaded the film incorrectly! I probably should have realized that originally when I couldn't rewind the film. The way I had loaded it, I could only advance the film.

This past weekend, though, while rotating the lense/film holder, I noticed a diagram on the machine that showed how to correctly load the film into the machine. After loading the film correctly, I could move it forwards and backwards, providing me a lot more freedom. The "prehistoric" microfilm reader also made for easier reading than a computer screen.

It makes for easier reading, at least, when you have the correct kind of light. The first machine I had was in a pretty bad position. It had too much overhead light from the fluorescents up above. I don't know exactly how to describe other than imagine driving at dusk time, when it's the hardest time of day and night to see. You think you know what you're seeing, but you're not so sure. Everything is obscured and illusionary. You have to concentrate and spend a lot of cognitive energy to make sense of everything around your car that you just want to pull over, take a breather and wait until the sun sets to see better again.

Or maybe I can better describe by saying the text looked especially smudged and blurry. It looked like someone wrote something with a pencil, erased it then smudged it all over the place with their hand when they tried to brush away the remnants of the eraser on a piece of paper.

The whole lighting situation got so bad that I had to move to another microfilm reader. Less light rained down on it, so I had an easier time reading it. The handwriting still sucked, but I didn't have to squint or think so hard to try translating what I read. I didn't have to try figuring out whether light was causing the problem with the interpretation or if I just found the handwriting troublesome.

Within a couple hours I had read or scanned through the rest of the letters and picked out ones that I wanted to scan onto my flash drive. I chose a long one written while in Europe that mentioned Brook Farm and a bunch of other ones that proved especially difficult to read. Most of those amounted to ones written by Ripley's wife at the time.

Scanning from microfilm proved a chore in itself. I zoomed the view of the microfilm much bigger than "fit to page" or 100%. I would guess that I had zoomed it into 125% to make reading it easier on the eyes once I had printed it out on paper, which I plan on doing, too, to further help not damage my eyes. Biggest problem with scanning the pages in at 125% is that I had to take two scans of every full page.

Things get even more complicated from there. I had to highlight part of the view on the computer of what I wanted to scan. This part got tedious because the person who made the microfilm copied the pages in a weird sequence. Maybe Ripley has some responsibility for the strangeness of the layout. The letter would start out with a view of one page, the next page on the microfilm would have two pages of the letter on it, the next microfilm page would only have one letter page, then two letter pages, one letter page, two letter pages, etc. etc.

To scan these varying layouts of one page, two page, one page, etc., I had to keep manually moving the microfilm reader attached to the computer. Advancing, rewinding, rotating, changing the brightness and a whole bunch of features I could control with the computer. Moving the microfilm side to side, though, I had to play with the reader manually.

Whoever makes that hardware and software needs to add in controls to move the film side to side. Not only would it be more convenient. Having that capability would also help to navigate the film more precisely.

Fat chance programmers will listen, though. In my experience these days, a good user interface has gone out the window as a priority.

I ran into a weird issue after a bit. The external microfilm reader for my computer had somehow slid too close to the reader connected to the computer to the left of me. The source reel for Ripley's kept getting stuck on the other machine, causing my reader to hiccup and fail to advance. The reel on the right would try to pull over some film, it hiccuped then just stopped.

After awhile of just trying to work with it, not knowing the problem and not wanting to bother the attendant, the reader and the computer simply stopped communicating. The computer wouldn't acknowledge the existence of the reader. The software shut down. The attendant fixed the communication issues by turning off the reader then turning it back on.

The collision between the machines kept occurring, however. Enough frustration led me to figure out the problem. Separating the two readers from each other fixed the problem for the rest of the day.

So by the end of my session there, with only a half hour left until The Society closed, I had scanned five letters, half page by half page. Even more annoying, each half page has its own PDF file. If I had Adobe Acrobat and not just the Reader, I can merge these files together instead of having these files all over the place.

Right now, I have all the half pages in separate folders according to which letter they correspond to. Handling the scans in this fashion gets on the nerves of my anal side. Beggars really can't be choosers, though, can they.

The scans I got, sadly enough, may not be very useful to me. In fact, the collection of letters may not help much with my paper. I've already written enough tonight, however. This part of the story will have to wait until another day.

Relevant Links: Adobe Acrobat, Brook Farm, microfilm, George Ripley, JohnnyHank, The Transcendentalists, The Wisconsin Historical Society, Zipcar

No comments: