Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The End of the Internet

These days it's sometimes very tempting to think that any piece of obscure knowledge, any bit of treasured nostalgia, can be exhumed on the internet. Everyone but you has forgotten a 6-episode sitcom from the early 1980s? Nope, someone carefully shepherded their VHS tapes for nearly 30 years and transferred the episodes to YouTube. A baseball player only got one appearance in the big leagues, à la Moonlight Graham? You can find his stats on one of a hundred clones of the Baseball Reference. But sometimes there are pieces of our collective memory that cannot be found in the colossal disk backup of the internet.

The other day I was on Wikipedia, and I happened to come across in a long thread of searches the page for Cuisenaire rods. Now these immediately triggered a memory in me. Like a nerd-child's bizarre version of Proust's madeleine, I found myself inside a huge school supply store in downtown Boston somewhere, where my parents would take me to gawk at the globes and maps and textbooks and educational toys (like the aforementioned rods). What the hell was that place?

Internet searching proved fruitless. Guys, I googled for at least 20 minutes. All kinds of combinations of search terms too. In the end? I had to call Mom.

And Mom had the answer. It was Hammett's. Of course! Hammett's was a huge name in school supplies. John L. Hammett invented the blackboard and eraser, for God's sake! But it took another long bit of Google searches to find out what happened to the company, and all the data lay in business news pages, talking about the decline of the storefront school supply store and Hammett's transition to an online business, headquartered in Braintree and aligned with a generic school supply wholesaler.

I wasn't sad when I found out there weren't any "Hammett's Learning World" fan pages out there, no pictures of the Boston store's floor as I remember it circa 1983. It was just one of those lessons that, well, internet non providebit. Libraries, oral history, and yes, regular old human memory, are still going to be our closest-to-hand and most reliable memory backups.

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