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Review of Lisa Gitelman, 'Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents'

Intellectual Affairs

Documentary History

March 12, 2014

A couple of weeks ago I decided, after prolonged dithering, to rent space in the digital warehousing district known as "the cloud." One of my laptops held at least five years' worth of material -- digital page proofs for books, JSTOR downloads, extensive photographic documentation of the lives of our cats, etc. -- running to about 14,000 files, or more than 50 gigabytes. Having all of it in one place seemed to tempt fate.

It also meant that use of my digital archive was restricted to times when that rather clunky laptop happened to be convenient. The biggest advantage of storing a file in the cloud is being able to retrieve it on any computer or e-reader that has web access. The savings in exasperation alone are considerable. A feeling of creeping senility kicks in when you end up with two or three copies of a paper that you probably already downloaded, but can't remember for sure (so just to be safe...) or spend part of a trip to the library gathering the same citations you collected a few years ago.

The one disadvantage -- in case anyone else out there has a similar digital hoarding problem -- is that first you have to upload everything, and it can take a while. The task does not require much attention. But even with sending batches of a hundred files or more at a time, it took a long weekend. That doesn't count the labor of sorting and labeling the files and weeding out duplicates, which, like housekeeping, is an ongoing process that never really ends.

After this long march into the paperless future, my study ought to look as aesthetically spare as an Ikea store display -- not crowded with cardboard boxes full of documents from projects both in progress and in limbo. But I'm not there yet and probably never will be. With a scanner and a few more weekends, all the files could all be rendered into PDF. For that matter, some of the material that took me years to locate, and not a few bucks to acquire, can now be downloaded in that format for free.

It's the same text, of course, yet somehow not the same document. The PDF lacks the aura of the original: the constant, lingering reminder that, in the past, readers held this specific document in their hands, focused attention on it for their own particular reasons, and decided that it was worth keeping.

Contact with the original document enriches the experience of reading -- thickening it with added layers of historicity. That said, it's also convenient to have a digital version of it on hand, to annotate or to share. But by the time I finished reading Lisa Gitelman's new book Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke University Press), even the humble PDFs downloaded on a JSTOR binge began to seem interesting in their own right as a variety of social and cultural artifact.

Gitelman, a professor of English and of media, culture, and communication at New York University, finds the contrast between print culture and digital culture much less compelling than a series of developments from the past 150 years conditioning how we understand documents of whatever variety, whether published with ink or in bytes. My hunch going in was that the author would give a fair bit of space to one more rehearsal and critique of Foucault's treatment of the concepts of document and archive in The Archeology of Knowledge. The eyes fairly glaze at the prospect.

Instead, Gitelman practices a kind of conceptual archeology without obeisance to the master, in an argument that stands well on its own.

To sum it up all too quickly, then: Discussions of print culture typically concern published matter of a few general kinds, such as books, pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers -- in short, mass-produced texts through which authors communicate with an audience.

But another category accounted for up to a third of the output of printers in the United States by the end of the 19th century: the "job printing" done for the government, industry, and small businesses, providing them with batches of application forms, tickets, order books, rent receipts, posters, and so on.

This layer of "print culture" was part of the basic infrastructure of modern bureaucracy and of advanced capitalism -- as essential to modernity as the circulation of books and magazines was in creating the "public sphere" (Jürgen Habermas) or the "imagined community" of the nation-state (Benedict Arnold). The concept of "author" hardly applied to the documents turned out by job printing, and they didn't typically have "readers," either, certainly not in the sense a newspaper did. But they were integral to everyday life -- and with the passing of time, they could become historical evidence, the raw material of scholarship.

Here the analysis begins to spin out a couple of threads that, by turns, twist together and move at odd angles to each other. Gitelman goes on to trace the efforts of academics in the 1920s and '30s to develop standards for making scarce primary sources available to the scholarly community (using emerging tools such as microfilm) while also establishing standards for cataloging and citing documents circulating through non-print modes of reproduction (for example, carbon copy or the hectograph).

Marketing of the Xerox machine in the early 1960s originally stressed its usefulness as a replacement for job printing. But by the end of the decade, copy shops were sprouting up around college campuses, precisely to meet the need for small-run reproduction of scholarly materials that American learned societies had anticipated in earlier decades.

By the time you reach the book's final chapter, on the rise of PDF, the relationship between the history of ground-level print culture and that of its Ivory Tower analog seem linked in so many suggestive ways that the advent of digital culture seems like just one part of an intricate pattern. Most of the stimulation of the book comes from Gitelman's narration and juxtaposition of developments across several decades, which unfortunately can't be captured in paraphrase.

It's the first of the author's books I have read, but it won't be the last.

 

 

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