Monday, October 31, 2011

The Electric Eraser

Last March I wrote about the card sorter as a piece of older library technology that many younger libraries don’t know how to use. Card sorters are used for catalog cards that need to be ordered before filing. Cards could be typed locally or purchased from a vendor. One reader suggested that I write about using the electric eraser as a lost art in preparing catalog cards. I never actually used an electric eraser. When I was a library page as an undergraduate I saw the technical services staff using electric erasers when correcting catalog cards.

I liked gadgets and wanted to try it since it seemed a lot easier than using a manually powered eraser.

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Electric erasers are still sold by library and art suppliers. They are used mostly by artists, architects and others who draw or write manually a lot. One would think that correction fluid and the computer delete key would make the eraser obsolete, but it is not. People still use their hands to write, draw and create and have a need to change and correct their work.

A digital agency in Germany, Jung von Matt/Next, created the “Museum of Obsolete Objects“ ( They claim that as our world becomes more and more digital some old technology devices fall by the way side as they are replaced by newer, “better” devices. Their “Museum” is a YouTube series of videos. Each video tells the device’s date of creation and the date they claim it became obsolete. Many of the devices in their display are not obsolete. Fax machines and quill pens are not obsolete. Their choice of objects shows a lack of understanding of the meaning of “obsolete.”

Sometimes a newer device or technology replaces an older one and sometimes it adds to our options. For a device to be obsolete it must be replaced by something that is functionally better. Better usually means that the new device can perform the function faster, less expensively, or has more capacity. For example the 8” and 5.25 “ floppy disks were replaced by 3.5” floppy disks in a hard plastic shells. The 3.5” disks stored more data in a smaller space and could be put in a shirt pocket. At first the 3.5” disks costs $14 each. When the price matched the older 5.25” disks on a cents per byte basis the older disks became obsolete. Except for historical purposes the 5.25” disks had no use. No one had a use for the older technology because the newer technology did more for less money and was easier to use. In turn the 3.5” diskettes were replaced by thumb drives and other compact memory devices, collectively called USB mass storage devices.) These newer memory devices are less expensive per byte to store data and easier to use. Most pictures files could not even fit on a 3.5” disk. One could have several gigabytes of files in a device about 2.5 inches long. My first device (64K capacity) was part of a working pen. When I went through airport security in June 2005 with it the guards had no idea what it was.

Some newer technologies have added to our choices. CDs replaced vinyl LP records, but there are still some being made and bought. CDs can store files inexpensively, but the sound is not the same as an LP. For most people the digital sound is superior, but some music fans like the analog sound that only LPs produce. Just because a device has passed from popular usage does not make it obsolete. Both the newer and older device can exist.

The electric eraser was never a must have device for every home or school child. Most had rubber erasers on the end of pencils and several kinds of rubber erasers. At the right is an example of a pink eraser.

They are still sold by office suppliers. Several videos on YouTube show how to make the pink eraser into a holder for a thumb drive. (For example:

To use an electric eraser take the card that needs changing and place it on a flat surface. With your non dominant hand hold the card firmly. If needed use an eraser guard to make sure you erase only what you intend. Turn on the eraser and carefully touch it to the words on the card you want to obliterate. Do not use too much pressure or the card will be ruined. When the words are gone, blow, brush, or wipe the dust away from the surface. Inspect, if you are satisfied that the card is ready for retyping, you are done. If not, repeat. Retyping can be problematic since the erasing process removes the surface finish of the card stock. You may need to type the new text multiple times before it is legible. If a name, subject, or heading was changed you will have to repeat this process for every card that needs changing.

Aren’t you now glad that you have a library management system that can make global changes with a few keystrokes?

Received from Kevin Roe on Nov. 1, 2011

Great article. We still have several electric erasers in our "archive" cabinet here at work. My favorite artifact is the glue machine, a very heavy behemoth that applied paste to the back of book pockets long before anyone thought of self-adhesive pockets. It did a great job, but wow, it was a pain to clean, and had to be done at the end of every day of use. For that reason, we only used it once or twice a week.

Another great piece of equipment we still have is the Gaylord Minigraph machine that reproduced catalog cards. We typed a shelflist card on a stencil that we then put on the minigraph drum that was filled with ink. The drum would rotate and ink would permeate the holes in the stencil made by the typewriter, allowing us to print cards. We would then roll the printed cards through the typewriter and add subject headings (in red of course) and added entries to the tops of the cards and voila! A full set of cards.

It's unbelievable how labor-intensive everything was. We still used all these artifacts back in 1986 when I started, and one of the first things I convinced our district to do was to let us join OCLC and get printed cards from them. The big worry was what would our students and staff do without red subject headings and (worst of all), no more salmon-colored cards for the nonprint items in our libraries!

Times have certainly made things easier. Thanks for the memories!

Kevin Roe
Fort Wayne Community Schools
Fort Wayne IN 46802

Received from Kay C. Schlueter on Nov. 2, 2011

I used to use a Polaroid camera mounted on a camera stand with a special lens to shoot pictures of NUC (National Union Catalog) entries for items that did not have any LC card availability. The camera would be mounted lens-down and the NUC would be placed under the lens. You would then adjust the distance and focus, snap the picture, pull out the film, and wait for it to develop. After that, the photo would be cut and mounted on library card stock, photocopied with enough cards for all the headings (on large card stock sheets, which then had to be cut), then sent to student workers to type headings. Early days, subject headings in red, then later in black but in ALL CAPS. This was in the early 1970’s at Southern Illinois U.-Carbondale, Morris Library.

Lots of people would be at the NUC area searching for catalog copy, and sometimes lots of pics waiting to develop would by lying around on tables. Sometimes you had to wait your turn to snap a photo. We had one cataloger who was fluent in Vietnamese (he was not of that culture), and if he were searching the NUC for copy and found some transliterated entries, he would put all the accent marks in their proper places in the NUC itself! Very thorough. Even if it wasn’t the copy he wanted!

By knowing this “early days” stuff, it makes me feel somewhat empowered. I’m sure many people who have risen up through technology and recollect the “old ways” feel a bit empowered over new people just entering the field, no matter what it is.

Kay C. Schlueter
Vermont State Colleges
Waterbury, VT 05676

1. Photograph from Cheryl Youse. Other photographs are from the author.

1 comment:

goldenlady said...

Last paragraph. To smooth out the area erased, some people used a bone folder. By rubbing the flat surface of the folder hard across the surface of the card it would smooth out irregularities and make typing easier. See