School’s out, and I go to a library

1991-2021 – realizing I will tick my thirty years of working experience, and reflecting on how I worked back then, and why I should choose to go for a physical book as summer reading.

Walking home the other day I just realized that it will be 30 years this September that I started my working life (not counting my student or summer jobs). Thirty years! And possibly another 13 years to go from here. Thirteen years!

Where does this observation take me? First I thought it would be nice (as a sort of summer “school’s out” reflection) to benchmark the different work situation / environment that existed then and is common now. In my first job, as Desk Editor for Elsevier Science, I commuted to Amsterdam (Sloterdijk), and I am back doing the same thing, but now working as Director Student and Educational Affairs, at the VU (Amsterdam Zuid).

As a Desk Editor I used my “materials science and engineering” knowledge to edit papers for journals such as “Mechanics of Materials”, or “the Journal of Material Processing Technology”. I got a crash course on English Editing, and I learned to unencode the files we received via email, though the majority of the papers were still sent to us on paper, and a lot of the mathematical formulas were handwritten (and therefore I needed to understand whether the symbol was a ơ or an ɛ, and had to use my materials science knowledge). All my correspondence was in English (I worked with native English speakers for over 12 years in my working life), and in my righthand I had a blue and red pencil, bound together with tape, to correct the manuscripts, in a common mark-up language.

I learned to work with LaTeX, and I remember one of my big achievements was compiling one big file, that comprised the full special issue of the first international conference of the World Wide Web, and I was the “guinea pig” for using the ftp server at Elsevier. Some years later I still used, privately, LaTeX, because I wanted to keep this skill. (I think it was a special issue of Computer Networks and ISDN Systems, crazy enough these papers are still not published in open access.)

We worked with paper files and had a system to know where the papers were in the production process by changing the location of the tab of the files in the filing shelf. We had fixed places in open office spaces, and though we started to work with email and fax machines, our correspondence was mainly put down in formal letters that we sent out by post. There was a secretary that assisted our pool of Desk Editors (I worked in the department of Mathematics & Computer Science).

In the three years I worked there, I was part of a big change, the move from paper to digital set foot, to never leave. It was pioneering (what I really like), testing, experimenting, learning … with big consequences. The main reason for me to leave Elsevier then was that the Desk Editors evolved in being issue managers; the copy editing was fully outsourced (in India). That was not my cup of tea!

At that time from 1991-1994 I did not travel (apart from daily commuting Delft-Amsterdam and vice versa) that much “for business”, but that changed when I returned to Elsevier (1997-2000) and traveled as Publishing Editor “around the world”. Without a mobile phone, with a special “card” to be able to work remotely, with a print itinerary with addresses and maps, … and I was able to get everywhere on time😉.

So back to today. Where we are discussing how we want to work in our offices, or at different places (mainly at home, what we were forced to do during the lockdown period due to COVID-19).  We chat via MicroSoft Teams (Microsoft Office 365 was introduced in our service unit last April), still have to find the benefits of Sharepoint, share our documents only marginally via OneDrive, and send and receive mainly emails to communicate. Our meetings are online, first via Zoom, but now also via MicroSoft Teams, and we all can see the advantages and disadvantages of meeting online. My desktop from 30 years ago is converted into a laptop. I do not use paper anymore. My communication has moved from post / fax to chat, WhatsApp and email, all possible to execute both on my laptop as well as on my mobile phone.

Never thought in 1991 about my current paperless world, so I cannot predict how my work will look like in future. Picture taken from frevvo website.

Comparing now and then is not so straightforward because I also changed in role and function, and have less “hands-on” work to do now, but am more involved in meetings, steering groups, crisis teams, etc. So really benchmarking the two situations is not possible.

What I do wonder: Are we again at the start or in the midst of a big change, as I was part of 30 years ago? Will we truly start to use and appreciate the benefits of the digital age (and realize and mitigate its dangers)? And what does that mean? Reflecting again I realize that we now often use the same tools, gadgets, devices for work as for pleasure/entertainment; connecting/casting to Netflix or Disney Plus, or what have you, from your mobile phone to a larger screen; also during the lockdown when I watched an IFFR movie or a play from ITA (International Theatre Amsterdam) remotely together with a friend.

I’ve always been a strong advocate for integration (that’s why I never bought an e-reader, next to having a mobile phone and a laptop or tablet), but I wonder whether the fact that we can work nearly everywhere at any time, actually calls for a segregation of devices, gadgets and tools, so that the split is not in the environment (home / work) or in time (office hours / evening or weekend for an office job), but can be found in the tools, devices or gadgets you use. Strange conclusion that needs to sink in a bit, but actually only pushing for moments that you privately and actively choose to be “offline”, to go about without tablet, laptop and perhaps even mobile phone.

And what a place to go to for your books! Picture taken from website public libary Delft: DOK Delft.

This summer you will find me back again in the public library, browsing the shelves for books to take with me, and I will choose (for the time being I guess, things might change) not to download books on my Kindle app or “bibliotheek online” app (the latter I only recently installed on my mini-iPad). Thirteen years to go, and hopefully more, to learn, adapt and change my off- and online behaviour!

Wilma van Wezenbeek
20 July 2021

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