Digital Campfire

I own a ScanSnap iX1500 document scanner. I originally acquired it with the intention to get my “work self” organized. And while I certainly use it to great effect in my workspace, I recently found another use for it: A digital campfire. To illustrate, it will help to understand how –in my kitchen, with my husband’s cousin— I came to be scanning 300 documents that had absolutely nothing to do with my work. And it all starts (and ends) with a manuscript.

“If you are a believer in a nice quiet life, read no farther. This book is not for you. However, if you like excitement, spy stories, submarines, unidentified flying objects, immobilization rays, and the like, read on. The life of a scientist and inventor is never a quiet one and each day for him is an adventure with the unknown. We have all witnessed the imagination of a child. It is a wonderful thing to behold. Some of us never lost it. Without imagination, there would be no invention.”

Thus, begins the first chapter of The Impossible Takes Longer by Louis R. Padberg, Jr., the contents of which would have perished if his nephew hadn’t held on to an innocuous powder blue three-ring binder that looked worn and weary. And if it weren’t for that nephew’s daughter who went through all of her father’s belongings after he passed peacefully in his sleep at the age of XX. And if it weren’t for a casual conversation that I had with that daughter—whom I don’t know all that well—that started with, “Let’s catch up! What’s going on in your world?”  Well, that innocuous powder blue three-ring binder that looked worn and weary may never have become something that lives on and that helped bring a family closer, had it not been for my ScanSnap iX1500 scanner.

 “Things are going well”, she replied. She went on. “I was appointed to clean out my dad’s house and he never threw anything away!” After some interesting discussion on how to separate the wheat from the chaff of a life well lived (and cabinets well stocked and drawers well stuffed), she casually mentioned, as if it were a fleeting thought, “I sure wish she could find a way to memorialize some of the more interesting finds.” Namely, a three-ring binder with almost 300 pages of a manuscript that her great uncle, an inventor, had written. She had put it away many times, moving it from pile to pile. One day, it made the priority list and she opened the innocuous powder blue three-ring binder to find a funny, well-written and researched work of art. The paper was of harder stock than today’s typical printer paper and its pages had a yellow hue, each carefully typed on a typewriter with hand written page numbers in the right-hand corner. Mistakes were evident and corrections were made with an ink pen, caveats thriving within the white areas of the double-spaced lines.

She immersed herself in the strange and magical world of an inventor’s mind. She was somewhat saddened, though, by the thought of there being only one manuscript and she contemplated copying the pages to distribute to other family members.  But the task seemed daunting.

As she told me about spy stories, submarines, unidentified flying objects, immobilization rays, and the like, I mentioned that my husband would like to read it and asked if I could scan it using my scanner that could scan 30 pages at a time. So, there we sat, she and I, at my house one afternoon with the original manuscript of The Impossible Takes Longer by Louis R. Padberg, contemplating how to turn this treasure into something more portable, duplicatable, and shareable. Using my ScanSnap iX 1500, we set sail for our digital adventure—to memorialize a manuscript that in 1969 was carefully typed and organized by its owner who longed to be a published author if only to have a better way to share his inventions with the world.  We were using a marvelous invention to showcase an inventor’s work. Uncle Louis would have been proud.

The scanner proved to be the perfect tool for this delicate job. With the adept skill of an archivist handling precious documents, Katie handed me the forward and then each chapter to scan. We developed a naming convention and with each scan, a new chapter emerged—until we had 39 chapters in all (plus an appendix). We discovered a publisher’s note extolling the virtues of the manuscript (but could find no such evidence that a deal had been formalized). We scanned it and added it to the folder.

As we scanned, we began talking about its contents, what fascinated her most, and how fortunate she was to have a father who held onto things. We caught up on our families and developed a deeper bond with each digital entry. The scanner was our digital campfire, giving us a reason to talk about family, memories, heartache, laughter, relationships, and even estrangements.

Due to the efficiency of the scanning process, the five hours we had set aside was cut in half. At the two-and-a-half-hour mark, we were finished. We beamed and in unison said, “we did it!”  I downloaded the forward, the 39 chapters, the appendix, and the publisher’s letter to a thumb drive and handed it to her, the daughter of a man who kept vigil over his uncle’s work for decades. As a celebration, we gave each other a big hug as if we’d found a new reason to be even closer. Soon, I was saying goodbye to her at my doorstep—thumb drive in her one hand and the manuscript in the other.  And then she was gone.

I began to imagine other paper documents that could be digitally memorialized. Love letters from my parents and grandparents. Diary and journal entries of feelings and thoughts that once were so important as to have been documented that are now yellowing on a shelf—waiting to be discovered. My father’s resignation letter from the U.S. Army after the shooting at Kent State.

What treasures are lying in boxes yearning to be discovered and shared? What history may be in jeopardy of being lost to a future generation because we haven’t found a way to easily capture our personal documents that tell our stories? What hand-written inscriptions or type-written impressions—where someone actually sat down and pressed down on a QWERTY keyboard to punch letters into a carbon ribbon—were out there waiting for their shot at the digital campfire? And what family bonding could be the result of a project to scan our histories? Yes. These documents are out there. Let’s preserve them and as we’re scanning and categorizing, let’s set the proper time aside to tell stories about family—sitting around the digital campfire that captures our historical documents with the press of a button.

About the Author: Sylvan Schulz

Sylvan is the founder and CEO of Grayspace Partnership, which specializes in Organizational Culture Consulting and Executive Culture. As an executive coach, she helps organizations build productive and purpose-driven cultures that are aligned with their strategies. Prior to Grayspace Partnership, Sylvan served as Vice President of Culture Development at Century Link, where she was responsible for integrating culture into the company's business practices.