September 19, 2012

Krajewski, Markus. Paper Machines?: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929. MIT Press,, 2011. Print. History and Foundations of Information Science.

Intellectual, material and technological history of the “file card” and its incorporation into the structure and conception of digital file storage and access. Central object of focus is the card catalog.

Starts with the question: why was there a moment where the designers of card catalogs promised they would be in some sense “universal information devices” capable of almost anything?

[Here I think there is a bit of the issue with Foucault and his use of Bentham’s panopticon. It’s a common gambit in a lot of critical theory/cultural studies: a deliberate blurring of the difference between imaginary, persuasive or sales discourses with literal claims that are made out to be widely distributed, universal or “epistemically representative”. Particularly when we get to late 19th/20th C, the most bombastic claims of modernists are often confused with the material and lived reality of the systems and institutions they inhabit and represent.]

Krajewski also makes another classic move, which is to place the contingent and discontinuous in a history of this kind back into the early modern up to the early 19th Century, and to make stories of the distribution and elaboration of a new discursive or material practice in the late 19th C. into a point where contingency collapses and continuous, consistent effects arise.

[Would like to think more on why we keep talking about the power of the catalog over the cataloged as dictatorial, authoritarian, etc. Also the way that the figuration of the bureaucratic and institutional is always a sort of iron cage.]

Interesting, very granular recounting of the specialization of scholar, librarian and cataloguer/archivist in stages.

Nice integration of Shannon and other information theory in concluding portion of book esp.

I do really like the way that the card and the book are reinscribed as antagonists in this reading of 20th C. institutionalization of information practices–offers a very interesting way to re-interpret Google Books.

“…a monograph on the technical media of commerce has not yet been written, or at least it is as yet unknown to the card index at work here.” p. 6

“When index cards are compared to bank notes or business cards, it is not to claim equivalence or similarity in their function. Rather the goal is to point to structural similarity without denying differences. The risk of an imperfect figure of speech is taken because metaphors, allegories, analogies and parallels harness a specific power of insight this study intends to deploy to good effect.” p. 7

“With the invention and spread of printing with movable type, a complaint arises in the learned reading world. It is the book flood, always a nautical or irrigation metaphor, that has a disturbing effect on readers in the newly established privacy of their studies.” p. 9

“The difference between the collective search engine and the learned box of paper slips lies in its contingency, and the resulting possibility that queries in one’s own terms can be posed to the strange arrangement. While a search engine is designed to register everything randomly, the scholar’s machine makes the determination whether or not to record a piece of information. This power of selection defines its idiosyncrasy.” p. 50

“With the increasing separation of the scholar from his formerly common professional service as a librarian…the author also necessarily withdraws from access to the library. His formerly direct control over masses of books wanes and becomes the domain and occupation of librarians.” p. 51

“Index cards owe their potential for surprise to the reading effect. If the accumulated notes remind users of what they were thinking, and if the texts also exhibit associations and connections to the complex rest of the content, then the notes serve not only as a memory aid, but also as a comparative horizon, shifted by time.” p. 64