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Why I Collect and Read Old Computer Manuals

Fabrizio Ferri Benedetti:

It’s my ritual: every time I enter a secondhand bookshop, I go straight to the Sciences section and search for old computer manuals. They’re very hard to come by, as their owners tend to throw them away once they stop using a particular device or piece of software. Manuals also happen not to be the most engaging read for most people, which adds to their rarity; few want to peruse an old IBM AS/400 handbook while laying at the beach.

Disregarding old manuals as useless piles of paper does them a grave disservice, though. Many of them are admittedly awful or outright boring, but some are ripe with forgotten tech lore and high-quality design. The writers of old manuals often enjoyed more editorial resources than tech writers are used to today, and produced handbooks and guides with greater care, because they couldn’t afford gross inaccuracies to go to press.

What makes old manuals so fascinating to me is that they document the history of applied computer science. This gives the entire field, including tech comms, the resemblance of a past. Let’s not dismiss that: in a sector where startups seem to build new things on top of blurry or nonexistent foundations, reading about old software reminds us that there’s indeed a giant upon whose shoulders we’ve climbed.

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