Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Our Emails Now Are Ended

As those of you who contact me off-blog should know, I'm in transition away from my long-standing institutional email address, which I'd got into the habit of using for everything, simply because I acquired it back in the days when having any email address at all was a novelty and a privilege.  I do still have the use of that original email ID, thanks to the indulgence of the university, but can't rely on it indefinitely.

Before I retired I foolishly decided to transfer much of my "personal" mail into a separate location, where it would be safely archived, only to discover -- too late -- that the transfer had not worked.  So that was 20 years of choice wit'n'wisdom down the e-tubes.  But now I realise I need to clear the decks again so the remaining "personal" stuff  (still a considerable quantity) can, at some point, be transferred to my new address (or more probably dumped down a different e-drain).  Oh, well.  So I spent much of Saturday and Sunday deleting thousands of work-related emails, received and sent, which I had felt the need to keep for one reason or another.  The bulk of them dated from after 2005, when I must last have seriously purged my mailboxes, but some dated back as far as 1998.

It was a real trip down Memory Lane, an electronic repeat of the bulk dump of paper files I carried out before vacating my office.  Not, I hasten to add, in a Stasi-style attempt to evade justice, but merely in recognition of the fact that the contents of my over-stuffed filing cabinet of personal copies of various agendas, minutes, and position papers were not unique or rendered more valuable by the annotations and elaborate doodlings I had scrawled over them (though see Tom Phillips' book Merry Meetings for a different perspective).

Doodles?  I'll always have my notebooks...
(where the doodle:note ratio is quite high...)

Ah, all those half-forgotten names, the prestigious projects and the last-minute lash-ups, the pressing concerns and the coat-trailing, the mails marked "urgent" and still unread after a decade (sorry!) with their never-to-be-opened attachments, the real and imagined crises, the routine comradely banter, and the occasional flash of genuine wit or even genius...  The stuff of work, replicated a billion-billion-billion-fold across the planet, and deader even than yesterday's papers: the day before yesterday's emails...

But talk about the ten thousand things!  Just to pick one: How could I forget the sheer aggravation caused to our library -- and to me, personally -- by the soliciting, chasing, submission, processing, and recording by my staff of something as apparently straightforward as our own bloody PhD theses?  Oh, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, but above all emails.  Lots of emails.  For example, a few years ago I was required to submit a signed and witnessed statement to a court in Massachusetts, where a multi-million dollar patent-infringement lawsuit hung on exactly when a particular PhD thesis -- embargoed for a certain period due to its commercial sensitivity -- had become available to public scrutiny on our shelves, more than a decade previously.  Lawyers can be fussy devils when they want to be -- the meter was really ticking on this one -- and there was an endless round of emails before the scope and wording of this statement was satisfactory to all parties.  And yet, ironically, it turned out that a faxed document is more acceptable to the legal mind than an email attachment.  I'd imagined flying to Boston with a notarised parchment chained to my wrist, but there was to be no expenses-paid trip to New England for me (although finding a functioning fax machine in the 21st century was an adventure in itself).

Then there were the endless changes.  Changes of library management system, changes of operating system, changes in programming language, changes in bibliographic standards, changes in network protocols, changes in platform and delivery of services, changes to the ownership, personnel, practices and geographical location of library automation "partners", and the constant updates, patches, service packs, changes to changes to ch-ch-ch-changes, version succeeding (which we had never implemented, anyway)...  I suddenly remembered why it was I had felt it was time to retire.  I was really, really tired of all that.

Over the years, I have taken to email as a medium.  I enjoy its to-and-fro, its immediacy, and its informality.  Where others preferred a perfunctory, all-business tone -- often mispelling wrods on prupose, I suspect -- I cultivated an email "voice" which, in a way, was a twenty year dry run for this blog.  However, I realise my attempts at witty, wordy, oblique, perspective-restoring replies may often have been exasperating, particularly for anyone trying to whip up some serious attention to a serious issue.  I was tempted to keep a representative sample, but a "selected emails" doesn't really have the same cachet as a "collected correspondence", especially when the subject is yet another go-round on the strange smell emanating from the basement.

Besides, I always have in the back of my mind the (bad) example set by a senior member of staff at one of the branch libraries at the university where I started my career, who -- in response to a letter from the manager of a local bookshop, explaining a problem with the supply of a certain book -- wrote that he had "no interest in the exculpatory whinings of a jumped-up shop-boy".  Luckily, this was in the pre-email days, when such a letter had to be typed up and filed and could be spotted and quietly modified by a wise secretary (who might keep it nonetheless, perhaps for blackmail purposes, or perhaps merely to show to junior professionals like me, for amusement and instruction).

I'm sure there must have been many times when I did hit "send" too soon, with no mediating secretary to save me from myself.  I do know I once accidentally broadcast confidential details of a competitive system tender from a particularly annoying supplier to an entire email list of British university systems support librarians, none of whom would afterwards believe it was an accident.  Which it was.

So, better now to hit "delete" a few thousand times, and say goodbye to all that...
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Except that all those emails will probably still be hanging around on or in some cloud somewhere, and cluttering up cyberspace until the last syllable of recorded time.

[Note: the new email address is in my "Profile", above right.]

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