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Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs,…
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Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929 (History and Foundations… (2002)

by Markus Krajewski

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: History and Foundations of Information Science

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» See also 4 mentions

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Decent academic history of cataloging and information organization methods centering upon card catalogs and indexes. While I was most interested in the library aspects of the topic, it was interesting to see the ways in which the card index was additionally translated into a business environment. Worth reading for those who would consider a history of the card catalog by a German media theorist worth reading. Maybe not for everyone. ( )
  Matthew.Ducmanas | Mar 18, 2016 |
From Timothy Burke's Making Scholarship blog:

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
  TimothyBurke | Sep 19, 2012 |
Markus Krajewski, in his work Paper machines, has written a definitive work on the history of card catalogs and catalog cards. Covering the years 1548 to 1929 (although there is material covering the periods before and after the target years), he covers book catalogs, paper slips, cardboard boxes and Melvil Dewey. Although libraries used this “new” technology, it rapidly expanded to the business world on both sides of the Atlantic, probably in part to Dewey’s Library Bureau. The most interesting fact was how the laziness of a Harvard Library employee, hired in 1812 to produce a catalog, led to the first American card catalog. In 1821, he was given an ultimatum to produce the catalog – in desperation since he had wasted ten years, he cut his paper slips with the bibliographic information and mounted them into books. Needless to say, he did not know that several European scholars and librarians had already done the same thing many years before. This led to standard cards, catalogs and vertical files. The rest is history.

But the burning question is why call catalogs paper machines? The author explains that card indexes possess all the basic elements of a discrete machine – elements can be rearranged which is mechanical work with the force being the user. A book catalog does not have this property. (See p. 7)

The book has extensive endnotes and a massive bibliography. However, since Krajewski originally published the work in German in 2002, many of the citations are in German and other languages. The 2011 English edition has many updated references. However, be aware that the translation is not the best. Words are occasionally used inappropriately and there were several that were either made up or came from sources unknown to an English speaker. Also the translator uses the present tense most of the time which is not standard practice in a scholarly book. I found myself actually reading the past tense when it was appropriate, no matter what was printed in the book. For example - “From autumn 1819 far into the next year, Croswell’s productivity reaches a new low.” - “The marketing strategy of Library Bureau relies on standardized paper strips …” The book would have benefited by an English speaking editor.

There are several good articles on the history of card catalogs and catalog cards but this is the first in-depth study in English and deserves to be read by librarians and those interested in the history of business practices. ( )
  fdholt | Jan 1, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0262015897, Hardcover)

Today on almost every desk in every office sits a computer. Eighty years ago, desktops were equipped with a nonelectronic data processing machine: a card file. In Paper Machines, Markus Krajewski traces the evolution of this proto-computer of rearrangeable parts (file cards) that became ubiquitous in offices between the world wars. The story begins with Konrad Gessner, a sixteenth-century Swiss polymath who described a new method of processing data: to cut up a sheet of handwritten notes into slips of paper, with one fact or topic per slip, and arrange as desired. In the late eighteenth century, the card catalog became the librarian's answer to the threat of information overload. Then, at the turn of the twentieth century, business adopted the technology of the card catalog as a bookkeeping tool. Krajewski explores this conceptual development and casts the card file as a "universal paper machine" that accomplishes the basic operations of Turing's universal discrete machine: storing, processing, and transferring data. In telling his story, Krajewski takes the reader on a number of illuminating detours, telling us, for example, that the card catalog and the numbered street address emerged at the same time in the same city (Vienna), and that Harvard University's home-grown cataloging system grew out of a librarian's laziness; and that Melvil Dewey (originator of the Dewey Decimal System) helped bring about the technology transfer of card files to business.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:25 -0400)

"Today on almost every desk in every office sits a computer. Eighty years ago, desktops were equipped with a nonelectronic data processing machine: a card file. In Paper Machines, Markus Krajewski traces the evolution of this proto-computer of rearrangeable parts (file cards) that became ubiquitous in offices between the world wars. The story begins with Konrad Gessner, a sixteenth-century Swiss polymath who described a new method of processing data: to cut up a sheet of handwritten notes into slips of paper, with one fact or topic per slip, and arrange as desired. In the late eighteenth century, the card catalog became the librarian's answer to the threat of information overload. Then, at the turn of the twentieth century, business adopted the technology of the card catalog as a bookkeeping tool. Krajewski explores this conceptual development and casts the card file as a "universal paper machine" that accomplishes the basic operations of Turing's universal discrete machine: storing, processing, and transferring data. In telling his story, Krajewski takes the reader on a number of illuminating detours, telling us, for example, that the card catalog and the numbered street address emerged at the same time in the same city (Vienna), and that Harvard University's home-grown cataloging system grew out of a librarian's laziness; and that Melvil Dewey (originator of the Dewey Decimal System) helped bring about the technology transfer of card files to business." --Publisher's website.… (more)

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