Twenty years ago I had my first job in content management. At the time I thought I was ad-libbing to fill in the blanks, but in hindsight I see the foundations for a weird, winding and fruitful career.
Unlike many of my peers, I couldn’t afford to take one of the unpaid internships that New York companies prolifically offered in exchange “for experience.” I had to make money if I wanted to afford all the concert tickets, records, booze, and bodega bagels I desired.
After a short search through my university’s job board, I landed an interview at a historical image licensing agency whose clients were textbook publishers, periodicals, film production companies and other researchers. They competed with the likes of Getty and Corbis but fit their extensive collection of slides and prints in a modest Park Avenue office suite.
When editors or producers needed pictures—reprints of old Thomas Nast cartoons, 1930s film stills, classic works of art, Colonial-era newspaper woodcuts, and the like—a tiny crew of researchers processed their requests, plucking the requested selection of slides and high-resolution prints from one of the three main filing areas. The images were packaged and sent across the city via mail or messenger, where they were scanned or reproduced, with the hard copies to be returned at some later date. My job was to refile the physical copies of each picture once they made their way back to the office.
“Someone recently filed ‘Molly Maguires’ under Historical figures – Ma and not under 19th century political movements – Mo,” the septuagenarian founder clucked during my interview. “In this case Maguires is not a last name!” I assured him that I wouldn’t make such errors, that I’d read A People’s History of the United States and would consult the company’s library of history books if I found an image and wasn’t certain where it belonged.
“Good,” he said. “Now, can you tell me, who is Elizabeth Bennet?” I delivered the response to his satisfaction, not because I was a literature student, but because my mother frequently watched VHS tapes of BBC’s Pride and Prejudice while she did housework. It didn’t matter where the knowledge came from, just that I had the answer at the ready. The founder seemed pleased that he could still find young people he could trust with his archive, his business, his life’s work. I was offered the job, a rare part-time role in the heyday of unpaid publishing internships.
The gig was ideal for a college student, not only because I had a knack for American historical and cultural trivia, but also because filing images was easy when hungover. I could return the immense backlog of previously used pictures at my own pace, alone at the cabinets with no one watching my work, as long as the researchers weren’t finding mistakes in the cabinets.
“Leading” the digital transformation
After about a year of organizing purely physical images, my duties changed. I’d worked my way through the backlogs and filed so many pictures that my role had become redundant. Lucky for me, my employer began what corporate consultants now call Digital Transformation. As the youngest, most expendable staff, I was the obvious choice to do the grunt work of the great digitization experiment: to scan and enter the pictures into the company’s brand new database.
The hours I’d previously spent filing were now devoted to scanning and data entry, which I could also do hungover. I scanned each image and typed its caption manually into the database. Alone in a back office, I soundtracked my scanning with the cds I brought. On the days I forgot my own music, I typed along with Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, since The Flaming Lips made their entire new album available to stream free online.* A typical shift comprised four back-to-back playthroughs of Yoshimi and seven or eight scans— about one scan and database entry per half-hour, depending on how well I’d bounced back from the previous night.
*Probably destroyed my colleagues’ internet speeds when I was streaming it, too, but no one seemed to mind. Oh, the days before the celestial jukebox!
My first encounter with keywords
Half a career later, I can look back and clearly see in my first job the mingling of physical and digital, of old publishing and new formats colliding. But at the time it didn’t feel like a brave new world of digital media or the forefront of digital content management. It was my day job, no glamour or glory; fulfilling paycheck-wise but mostly tedious. It was just scanning historical pictures and typing their captions.
Oh, and filling in the keywords field.