September 10, 2012
In the typewriter room
Which leads me directly to the Typewriter Room at the New Main San Francisco Public Library (below),
the subject of a wonderful May 30, 2012 New York Times article (below) by Greg Beato.
Amid the civil hush of the New Main San Francisco Public Library, I recently experienced an aspect to writing I'd all but forgotten: noise. It happened in a workspace called the Typewriter Room. Operating the machine that gives the room its name, I struck the "T" key, then the "H" key, and for the first time in at least two decades, I was rewarded with the bracing clackety-clack of analog-era content production.
When the New Main opened in 1996, its boosters touted it as a "high-tech information retrieval center." So did its critics. It had 300 computer workstations, additional electrical outlets for patrons who brought their own laptops, a sleek and airy layout with sightlines that made it the envy of every high-security prison warden in the land, and apparently, hidden in some low-tech, off-message nook, a Typewriter Room.
When I stumbled across a Web site mention of it a few months ago, I immediately envisioned an enclave where Mark Twain would feel at home. You know, dark-paneled walls, period carpeting, maybe a large, stuffed bird in the corner.
And of course a boxy, aggressively unergonomic typewriter, with a surfeit of levers, spools, guides, knobs, releases, gauges, clamps and keys.
Naturally, the Typewriter Room is nothing like that. It's a cubicle-size room with glass walls that expose it to the rest of the library. It has a utilitarian, built-in desk. And while a small sign advises that the space is "designed for a maximum of two people to use comfortably," that’s an optimistic assessment given the room's single wooden chair.
The Typewriter Room's typewriter is similarly bereft of romance. It is electronic, a TA Adler-Royal Satellite 40, with the beige plastic contouring of a fax machine from 1987 and a 700-character memory that allows you to go back and correct typos you made three sentences earlier. And yet despite its utter lack of charming Luddite clunkiness, it's just ancient enough to deliver a completely different experience than one has when typing on today’s increasingly vestigial computer keyboards.
The metallic clatter the Satellite 40’s daisy wheel makes when it strikes the platen definitely seems too loud for a library, and even too loud for a high-tech informational retrieval center, but it sure is satisfying. If your thoughts come slowly but steadily, the Satellite 40 lends a sense of craftsmanship to your work, as if you're building arguments as sturdy and elegant as a redwood deck. If inspiration strikes and your thoughts come more quickly, the Satellite 40 explodes with the sound of your mental fireworks.
You can't just tickle the Satellite 40’s keys either. You have to give them a solid poke, and between this extra effort and the noise, an activity that has devolved into mostly a cerebral effort in recent years suddenly becomes tactile again, and this tactility in turn inspires a kind of mental momentum. You hear yourself being productive. You feel yourself being productive. Adrenalin kicks in, you get into a groove, thoughts come easily, gracefully, forcefully. Imagine dozens of reporters sharing the same space, all of them aware of one another’s output, all of them eager to make some noise of their own — the newsrooms of old must have sounded like battlefields.
According to Cathy Nyhan, fifth-floor manager at the New Main, San Francisco’s old Main library had a typewriter room too, a bigger one, filled with "tons of typewriters." When the institution moved into its new high-tech home, it wanted to preserve that functionality, albeit on a more limited scale. Hence, the Typewriter Room and what is, at least within the realm of the New Main and the city's 27 branch libraries, the last public typewriter.
The typewriter in the Typewriter Room is kept under lock and key. It's available on a first-come, first-serve basis, no reservations accepted. If you want access to it, you fill out a form and a staff member opens the room for you. The library does not provide paper. Not so long ago, Ms. Nyhan tells me, as many as 10 people a day used the Typewriter Room, but now it's down to around two a day. They’re people who need to fill out forms, or people who never took to computers.
As long as such users exist, so will the Typewriter Room. "As a public library, we take our mission to serve the public seriously," Ms. Nyhan says. If technical problems develop, there are backup typewriters in a nearby storage room and a repairman on call, 65-year-old Rene Salinas of Rene Business Machines, who has been servicing the library's typewriters for more than two decades. "They used to have 50 machines," Mr. Salinas says. "Now, it's like six or seven."
The repairmen are dwindling, too. "I'm the only guy now," Mr. Salinas says. "The young guys, they don't know machines like that."
And so, really, how long can the Typewriter Room last? Sooner or later, Mr. Salinas will retire. Sooner or later, the sources for replacement parts will all dry up. Sooner or later, when we're wearing Google glasses and using our brain waves to type, the library is going to need space for the Computer Room.
September 10, 2012 at 04:01 PM | Permalink
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference In the typewriter room:
cute but i will never go back to analog and white out
Posted by: rob | Sep 10, 2012 10:36:29 PM
My understanding is that Ray Bradbury wrote Farenheit 451 in a typing room at the Los Angeles public library.
Posted by: Dave Tufte | Sep 10, 2012 5:41:59 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.