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Paper Machines

Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929

Markus Krajewski
translated by Peter Krapp
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Paper Machines
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29821-6
    Subjects: Library Science, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. 1 From Library Guides to the Bureaucratic Era: An Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    “Card catalogs can do anything”—this is the slogan Fortschritt GmbH introduces to promote its progressive services in the 1929 volume of theZeitschrift für Organisation(figure 1.1), quite in accordance with its name:Fortschritt, progress. The promise offered in the very first phrase of the company’s full-page advertisement is a lofty one, and there is more to come:

    Card catalogs canmaintain orderamong tens of thousands of small and large items in the warehouse management of large industrial plants, they can structureany number of addressesin personnel departments, they cancontrolthemovementof hundreds of thousands...

  4. 2 Temporary Indexing
    (pp. 9-24)

    With the invention and spread of printing with movable type, a complaint arises in the learned reading world. It is thebook flood, always a nautical or irrigation metaphor, that has a disturbing effect on readers in the newly established privacy of their studies.¹ “There are so many books that we lack the time even to read the titles,” notes the Italian bibliographer Anton Francesco Doni in 1550, already pointing toward theincreasing readingof titles and footnotes as a principal reaction to too many texts.² The explosion of written material after the introduction of the printing press brings a...

  5. I Around 1800

    • 3 The First Card Index?
      (pp. 27-48)

      On Christmas Eve, 1770, a court decree by Her Majesty Maria Theresa goes out to the mayor of Vienna, ordering him to “make the numbers on all houses legible and visible, on punishment of 9fl.”¹ This refers to the so-calledconscription numbersthat serve to simplify the registration of the male population of Vienna so as to include all possible conscripts. Yet since “difficulties” crop up in carrying out this administrative act, the mayor obeys the royal order in trying to create transparency and asks the town council in early January 1771, after Epiphany, to mark houses in the course...

    • 4 Thinking in Boxes
      (pp. 49-68)

      When Konrad Gessner advocated in Zurich in 1548 that book indexes and descriptions should be made using excerpting tactics, he did so as a scholar addressing librarians as well as authors. The second half of the eighteenth century witnesses trends that help to dissolve this narrow coupling of librarian and scholar. Two lines of development emerge, differentiating formerly closely related functions. One points directly to the education of professional librarians, who regard the production of indexes as an inherent part of their occupation. A second path already gained considerable attention in the course of the seventeenth century—namely, an aesthetic...

    • 5 American Arrival
      (pp. 69-84)

      How, then, does the library card index reach the New World, and how does it also develop into a card index system for business use? On the one hand, American librarians travel around Europe throughout the first half of the nineteenth century to study—and later to import—library technologies for their own, rapidly developing libraries, particularly in New England. Wellknown and influential American librarians like Charles Coffi n Jewett (1816–1868), who maintains a close connection with Anthony Panizzi at the British Museum starting in 1845, or Joseph Green Cogswell (1786–1871), who studies at Göttingen for several years...

  6. II Around 1900

    • 6 Institutional Technology Transfer
      (pp. 87-106)

      On October 6, 1876, a 25-year-old assistant librarian signs the corporate charter of the American Library Association thus: “Number One, Melvil Dewey.”¹ On Dewey’s initiative, America’s most famous librarians have assembled in order to found an association with the aim of promoting “the best reading for the greatest number, at the least cost.”² Despite his youth, the initiator assumes the position of secretary, and from then on devotes himself to the development of American librarianship through the association.

      From age sixteen, Dewey, who comes from a modest background and has been brought up strictly in the evangelical mind-set of white...

    • 7 Transatlantic Technology Transfer
      (pp. 107-122)

      Throughout the nineteenth century, the practice of using index cards not occasionally but permanently in cataloging large book collections spreads among European libraries, finding its way across the Atlantic into the New World, to be naturalized after 1861 as a new technique accessible to a general audience. Ezra Abbot could be said to have sponsored its green card. Already in 1877, one year after its foundation, a delegation from the American Library Association departs for Europe to found a subsidiary in the United Kingdom. Melvil Dewey and his future wife are among the travelers; they meet during idle hours aboard,...

    • 8 Paper Slip Economy
      (pp. 123-142)

      Although The Bridge collapses on the eve of World War I, advertising stamps proving an insufficient foundation, Wilhelm Ostwald succeeds in drawing attention to his universal concepts of organization even after the failure of the project. However, in 1914, the global turn of events—that is, the outbreak of World War I—galvanizes the mental labor of nation-states into a different scientific and economic mode. In the German Reich, this is reflected in the test for index cards as a catalog technology when, in 1914, they replace the bound catalog of the Royal Library in Berlin to collect and order...

  7. Afterword to the English Edition
    (pp. 143-144)
    Markus Krajewski

    Progress knows no borders. Beginning with vacuum cleaners and telephones, electric and electronic technologies have invaded the library and have transformed information technology as well as the tools of rapid knowledge production. Be it in the form of catalogs that turn into OPACs, be it computerized data management, things no longer work without digital impulses.

    And yet they remain the same—for instance, when one attempts to write the history of a reference technology and its many transformations. Its episodes and building blocks wander from books onto single slips of paper, are accumulated in digital or paper form, only to...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 145-180)
  9. References
    (pp. 181-206)
  10. Index
    (pp. 207-215)