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Alaskan Range: Gizmo's

"Delving through dusty boxes of the library’s historical records has left me musing about innovations, and fittingly filthy. Many new technologies have come and gone in my two decades on the job here in Fairbanks, and many more in the preceding epochs,'' writes librarian and columnist Greg Hill.

For example, our library’s hand-written circulation statistics from January, 1974 indicate that 522 LP records and 13 film strips were borrowed, and that the slide projector was lent 12 times. What with the rise of personal computers, internet, and online databases, as well as the evolution of communications driven by ever-evolving social media technology, change is the name of the library game.

Or is it? As the philosopher Edmund Burke suggested, “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.” Five thousand years ago, when writing and libraries were invented, my professional predecessors were engaged in the same pursuits that fill my days: gathering information, organizing and protecting it, and disseminating it to those who are permitted to use it. They collected clay tablets, while we’ve moved on to digital records, but the prime functions remain unchanged. America’s library innovation was to create libraries that everyone can use, not just the rulers and their pals.

Innovations in communication are happening so fast that scads of websites are dedicated to tracking them. Some new ideas are better than others. One such site, Gizmodo.com, is described by Wikipedia as “a technology weblog about consumer electronics … known for its up-to-date coverage of the technology industry, along with topics as broad as design; architecture; space and science.” There you’ll find reviews ranging from “The Best Affordable Pro Compact Camera” – the Sony NEX-C3 – to a plastic device to facilitate the peeling and de-stringing of bananas – don’t bother buying it. By the way, those banana strings are more properly known as “phloem bundles,” because “phloem” is the “food-conducting tissue of vascular plants,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary.

The tide of human innovation often rises to meet critical needs. During World War II, for example, prisoners of war needed help to escape, and the answer came from the game Monopoly. The game had been licensed to a British firm in 1935, and that manufacturer agreed to develop special versions of their game that included hidden silk maps, local currency, compasses, and screw-together files. The Nazis then unwittingly permitted fictitious relief organizations to distribute the rigged Monopolies to prison camps.

That conflict also produced duct tape. Developed by Johnson and Johnson, the tape was originally used for sealing ammunition boxes. It was based on cloth adhesive tape that was invented by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacture (now called 3-M), but J&J used tough green cotton duck material to waterproof it.

That imperviousness to moisture is not why the stuff was originally known as “duck” tape. “Cotton duck” is a corruption of “doek,” the Dutch term for “linen canvas.” What makes it “heavy”? Duck’s weight is determined by weighing a 36X22-inch piece of material, the scale ranging from seven ounces for light canvas clothing to eighteen ounces for sandbags. Your twelve ounce duck Carhartts are in the middle. After the war duck tape’s color was changed to silver to better match ductwork, and the name evolved from duck to duct. The stuff was so sticky that the rolls would adhere to each other, and it didn’t become really popular until the manufacturer began shrink-wrapping the rolls to prevent that.

Librarians use all sorts of tape: binding, hinge, masking, strapping, double-sided, painter’s, and shipping, among them. We don’t purchase recording tape these days, although lots of people still use audio cassettes, judging by their enduring popularity at our library. Audio cassettes were new-fangled in January 1974, when our library lent ninety-one of them, but the duration of “cutting edge” has decreased markedly since cassettes’ hey-day.

Not all innovations are as worthy as public libraries and duct tape. Gizmodo also reported on a new television remote control that changes channels randomly when it detects flatulence, and a lipstick that holds a 4.5 mm pistol. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted, “the inventions are excellent but the inventors one is sometimes ashamed of.”


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