Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents

Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents

by Lisa Gitelman

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Paper Knowledge is a remarkable book about the mundane: the library card, the promissory note, the movie ticket, the PDF (Portable Document Format). It is a media history of the document. Drawing examples from the 1870s, the 1930s, the 1960s, and today, Lisa Gitelman thinks across the media that the document form has come to inhabit over the last 150


Paper Knowledge is a remarkable book about the mundane: the library card, the promissory note, the movie ticket, the PDF (Portable Document Format). It is a media history of the document. Drawing examples from the 1870s, the 1930s, the 1960s, and today, Lisa Gitelman thinks across the media that the document form has come to inhabit over the last 150 years, including letterpress printing, typing and carbon paper, mimeograph, microfilm, offset printing, photocopying, and scanning. Whether examining late nineteenth century commercial, or "job" printing, or the Xerox machine and the role of reproduction in our understanding of the document, Gitelman reveals a keen eye for vernacular uses of technology. She tells nuanced, anecdote-filled stories of the waning of old technologies and the emergence of new. Along the way, she discusses documentary matters such as the relation between twentieth-century technological innovation and the management of paper, and the interdependence of computer programming and documentation. Paper Knowledge is destined to set a new agenda for media studies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In this thoroughly media archaeological book, Lisa Gitelman folds media history and discovers its edges by diving deep into the flatland of documents, reading technologies of duplication and dissemination from nineteenth-century 'job' printing to today's PDF. With implications for archival and information science, comparative media, digital humanities, and the history (and future) of texts, Paper Knowledge will be read, referenced, and reproduced—which is exactly what we want our documents to do."—Matthew Kirschenbaum, author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination
Somatosphere - Alexander von L�nen

"A well-rounded exploration of publishing technology and how it transforms every aspect of our lives, from the way we are governed to the way we read books and news."
Somatosphere - Alexander von L��nen
"A well-rounded exploration of publishing technology and how it transforms every aspect of our lives, from the way we are governed to the way we read books and news."
Archives and Manuscripts - M��l Hogan
“For young scholars navigating the worlds of online and print publishing, and all the meanings and values placed on those outputs, Gitelman’s reflections prove immensely insightful at a defining moment when paper no longer rules.”
Technology and Culture - Nicole Howard

"If Paper Knowledge offers one crucial insight to the conversation about print and technology it is that 'print culture' as a category is highly problematic because it presupposes certain kinds of print and leaves too much out."
Matthew Kirschenbaum

"In this thoroughly media archaeological book, Lisa Gitelman folds media history and discovers its edges by diving deep into the flatland of documents, reading technologies of duplication and dissemination from nineteenth-century 'job' printing to today's PDF. With implications for archival and information science, comparative media, digital humanities, and the history (and future) of texts, Paper Knowledge will be read, referenced, and reproduced—which is exactly what we want our documents to do."
Leonardo Reviews - Jan Baetens

"In all cases, Gitelman offers a meticulous reconstruction of the historical context of the media changes she foregrounds and in many regards this book is a real Wunderkammer. At the same time, however, the author always scrutinizes the past in order to show what it can mean for us today, and here the political dimension of the book comes to the fore. For Paper Knowledge is also a passionate discussion of what knowing and showing are about, namely the possibility to producing, sharing, debating knowledge in a society to opens this knowledge to all of its members and whose structure, thanks to technology, is no longer determined by those who know and show and those who don't."
Somatosphere - Alexander von Lünen

"A well-rounded exploration of publishing technology and how it transforms every aspect of our lives, from the way we are governed to the way we read books and news."
Times Literary Supplement - Jason Scott-Warren

“The proliferation of marriage certificates and death warrants holds few terrors for Lisa Gitelman, who finds richness rather than ennui in them. Her ingenious essay in media archaeology, Paper Knowledge, takes as its central category the document. The document is a material genre; the words matter, but so too does their physical instantiation, which is often accompanied by a baroque flummery of water-marks, seals and signatures. And the document is remarkable as a product of print that does not ask to be read. Instead, documents are used to hold us in place within a web of bureaucratic institutions.”
Publishing Research Quarterly - John Rodzvilla

“Every chapter in Paper Knowledge stands on its own as a complete history. Each chapter provides the reader with a better understanding of the symbiotic relationship between printed document and the global economy. … Paper Knowledge turns the focus of Media Studies from the Big Cultural Object and applies the same rigor to printed objects that were never designed to be noticed in the first place. And these forgotten objects carry with them the history of how we really understand the richness of media in our lives.”
Quarterly Journal of Speech - Joan Faber McAlister

“Gitelman’s richly detailed excavation of institutional artifacts that shape material and semiotic processes (such as the ‘job printed’blank form and the PDF file) encourages rhetorical critics to stop flattening media into texts and start fleshing out documents as media with specific histories and utilities, transient technologies that leave a substantial wake in their passage through social worlds.”
Journalism and Mass Communication Educator - Melony Shemberger

“The history of documents carries great significance, perhaps more than any of us could have realized, and Gitelman’s comprehensive scholarship in this book establishes a new agenda, one that celebrates the past and charts the course of the document. This book provides educational support for researchers in information science, media history, and the digital humanities.”
Archives and Manuscripts - Mél Hogan

“For young scholars navigating the worlds of online and print publishing, and all the meanings and values placed on those outputs, Gitelman’s reflections prove immensely insightful at a defining moment when paper no longer rules.”
Choice - W. Alvarez

“Gitelman offers keen insights into the constitutive nature of documents in modern social life. Merging wittiness, casualness, and rigor, she crafts a nuanced picture of the document and some of
its key genres. … A must-read for media studies and digital media; useful for those interested in communication, cultural studies, and sociology. Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty."
Leah Price

"Lisa Gitelman's virtuosic excavation of media from the recent past replaces lofty generalizations about 'print culture' with a fine-grained sense of different technological and intellectual moments. Her historical narrative has something to teach not just about the past but also about the future, because her reconstructions of 'job' printing, microfilm, photocopying, and the PDF add up to a prehistory of what we now call the digital humanities, one that challenges not just received wisdom about the past but the media theory that underpins scholars' present-day practices."
Times Higher Education - Colin Higgins

“Four intriguing essays make up this tantalising and ambitious short book. . . . The strength of this bold volume is in its argument that we can learn a great deal if we focus, not only on what information they contain but what institutional and social function they serve; not what they’re about but what they do.”
Inside Higher Ed - Scott McLemee

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

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Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Sign, Storage, Transmission
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Paper Knowledge


By Lisa Gitelman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5657-8


A Short History of _________

In 1894 the American Dictionary of Printing and Bookmaking offered examples in its entry on blank books:

Address-books, bank-books, bankers' cases, bill-books, blotters, books of design, buyers' price-books, card albums, cash-books, check-books, collection-books, composition, exercise and manuscript books, cotton-weight books, day-books, diaries, drawing-books, engineers' field-books, fern and moss albums, flap memorandums, grocers' and butchers' order books, herbariums, hotel registers, indexes, invoice-books, ledgers, letter-copying books, lumber and log tally-books, manifold-books, memorandum-books, miniature blanks, milk-books, money receipts, notes, drafts and receipts, notebooks, order-books, package receipts, pass-books, pencil-books, perpetual diaries, pocket ledgers, portfolios, receiving and discharging books, rent receipts, renewable memorandums, reporters' note-books, roll-books, salesmen's order-books, scrapbooks, scratch-books, shipping receipts, shopping-lists, tally-books, travelers' ledgers, trial-balance books, tuck memorandums, two-third books, visiting-books, writing-books and workmen's time-books.

The list points variously to the workplace, marketplace, school, and home, while it belies the assumption that books are for reading. Books like these were for writing, or at least for incremental filling in, filling up. Fillability in some cases suggests a moral economy (diaries and fern and moss albums, for example), and in many others it suggests the cash economy with which nineteenth-century Americans had grown familiar. Filling up evidently helped people locate goods, map transactions, and transfer value, while it also helped them to locate themselves or others within or against the sites, practices, and institutions that helped to structure daily life. Roll-books and workmen's time-books might be the incremental instruments of power—locating as they do the schooled and the laboring—while hotel registers, rent receipts, and visiting-books point toward the varied mobility of subjects who stayed over, resided, or stopped by. Letter-copying books helped businessmen keep at hand the very letters they also sent away, while cotton-weight, milk-, lumber and log tally-books offered space to record one moment—and always again the same moment—in the life cycle of a bulk commodity. Some examples (flap memorandums? two-third books?) are obscure today. The general picture, however, is one of motion—a confusion of mobilities, really—whereby things, value, and people circulate: they move through space and across borders, from and to, out and in; they get caught and kept, or they pause and pass. Moving faster or slower, they also move in time, recorded in increments and thus amid intervals.

Yet for all of the mobilities the list suggests, it also suggests stasis or inertia. Things (cards and fern fronds, for example) and—more typically—records of things stopped forever as they filled the waiting blankness of books like these. Writing is mnemonic, the history of communication tells us; it is preservative. And so are printing and bookmaking: each of the books listed formed a class or category of blank because each catered to the repetition of certain kinds of writing. If writing is preservative, these books preserved preservation. Their design, manufacture, and adoption worked to conserve patterns of inscription and expression. A blank blotter catered to the repetition of inked inscription only—no matter what was written or drawn—but most blank books would have worked however modestly to mold, to direct and delimit expression. Order and invoice books, for instance, like ledgers and daybooks, catered to inscriptions accreted according to the vernacular habits of trade and the long-standing formulas of accountancy. Habits and formulas can change or be changed, of course, but inertia is their defining characteristic. Checkbooks and receipt books called for perfunctory expressions according to legal necessity, or at least according to shared standards of proof attending the transfer of funds ("Pay to the order of _________"). Entries made in exercise books, composition books, and reporters' notebooks would have been far less constrained, less formulaic, yet they too were loosely microgenres, repetitive expressions in some sense shaped according to the inertial norms and obligations that attended the specific settings or callings in which they and the books that contained them were habitually deployed. These blank books were meta-microgenres, one might say, documents establishing the parameters or the rules for entries to be made individually in pencil or ink. Rules, like habits, were broken, of course—as notebooks became scrapbooks, for instance, or as ledgers became the illustrated chronicles of indigenous tribes—but rules there were; that is what made one class of blank book distinguishable from another.

To write of "rules" for filling them up is likely to exaggerate the constraints hinted at or imposed by different types of blank books, but it also appeals obliquely to conditions of their design and manufacture to which it is crucial to remain attuned. Many blank books—though not all—were ruled, their pages lined in expectation of particular uses, as if in standing reserve for the document they are to become. Like blank forms generally, the pages of many blank books had ink on them. That ink—whether applied by a specialized ruling machine (figure 1.1) or printed on a printing press—was paradoxically what made most blanks blank. Each type of blank was designed and manufactured for its own purpose, like a primitive information technology, Martin Campbell-Kelly has suggested, suited to the organization and control of knowledge according to what Charles Babbage—writing in 1835—called "the division of mental labor." Though the first blanks were ancient or medieval documents rather than modern ones, and thus predate printing (think, for example, of papal indulgences5), the nineteenth century witnessed a proliferation of preprinted blank forms. The people who designed and deployed them were thinking ahead to their filling in. The labor of filling was divided from the labor of planning what filling was for and directing how filling should happen: a "managerial revolution" wrought in miniature and avant la lettre.

Take a quick look at that list again. The sheer diversity of forms—of blank forms or of forms of blank—hints first at the broad purview and intricate specialization of the printing trades in the nineteenth century, but it hints more particularly at the diversity of knowledge work to which job printers and their associates catered. So-called job printing was a porous category used to designate commercial printing on contract—often small jobs—standing in habitual distinction from the periodical press and "book work," in the nineteenth-century printers' argot. Job printers were printers who catered to bureaucracy, knowledge work of and for the state, but also of and for other residual and emerging forms of incorporation. Job printing fed the paperwork addiction of managerial capital, in particular, as it expanded into national and then multinational enterprises. But plenty of the work of job printing had little or nothing to do with the overarching logics of government or the fortunes of the modern corporation. Think of those butchers' order books and rent receipts. Printed forms were documents that inhabited the interstices of American life at a much more mundane level, too, as job printers produced everything from diplomas and playing cards to a profusion of tickets, posters, and labels.

Rather than a thoroughgoing history of blanks from A to Z—or from address-books to workmen's time books—this chapter seeks to sketch preliminarily what such a history might entail and imply. In particular, it raises the question of how blanks, and job-printed documents more generally, may have worked to structure knowledge and instantiate culture in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. My title, "A Short History of," alludes to and appreciates a different work on structures of knowledge and the instantiation of culture, Patricia Crain's The Story of A, which considers the alphabet and the culturally and historically specific conditions of the acquisition of literacy in the early United States. Just as American children were schooled partly by dint of print genres like alphabet books and spellers, so American adults became subject to a profusion of printed forms in association with institutions of every stripe. Elsewhere Crain describes the ways the word "literacy" itself gets thrown around—in phrases like "literacy acquisition" and "literacy rates"—as the expression of "everything that is left out when one speaks solely of reading and writing." The surplus meanings of the word "literacy" point off the page, toward, "among other things, ideology, culture, identity, power, [and] pleasure." One of the arguments I make here is that the topic of nineteenth-century job printing works in something of the same fashion, or as a sort of inversion, the site of surplus meanings otherwise left out by the history of communication as well as by "print culture studies" or "the history of the book." These last two scholarly subfields are usually organized around accounts of authors, editors, booksellers, publishers, and readers: cohorts notably missing from the world of blanks. Blanks are printed and used, not—as I hope will become clear—authored or read.

Before the nineteenth century job printing was a lucrative staple of the printing house, something that printers like Benjamin Franklin relied on for bread and butter amid newspaper and book work. Later it became a sideline in some cases, for newspaper offices and businesses dependent on printed matter (think of mail-order concerns, for instance, which might produce their own catalogs), but it was also increasingly recognized as a separate or sometimes separable division of the printing trades, a specialized labor practice requiring its own machinery, material, and expertise. The increasing specialization of job printing inspired—and was partly inspired by—innovations in printing technology: smaller iron hand presses, particularly versions of the platen press or "jobber" (after 1850), as well as specialized borders, fonts (especially what are known as display fonts) and furnishings, like the American job case (after 1838). It was perhaps ironic, then, that job printing remained specialized at the end of the century in part because it was not as susceptible as either newspaper or book work to the incursions of linotype and monotype. (At the annual meeting of the International Typographical Union in 1894, the union's president expressed a concern that the affinity among branches of the industry "will be greatly lessened by the reason of the almost total dissimilarity of working methods.") Though I dwell on examples from the 1870s through the 1890s, the best reckoning we have of job printing is from a later time, since the 1904 Census of Manufactures analyzed the size and structure of the printing and publishing industry. The Census Bureau found that the value of newspapers and periodicals produced in the United States represented fully 52 percent of the total for the industry. Job printing accounted for another 30 percent, while books and pamphlets were worth just 11 percent (a mere smidgen of them were literature), leaving 7 percent for other work, like music publishing, lithography, and—in this tally—the manufacture of blank books as distinguished from forms and other job work. Looked at in this light, job printing has been weirdly invisible—a hole in the past the way the budget of the Central Intelligence Agency is a hole in the U.S. balance sheet—despite its giant footprint. Something like a third of this sector of the economy has gone missing from media history, encountered if at all in that most unglamorous and miscellaneous of bibliographical and archival designations, ephemera.

Although the subject of nineteenth-century job printing thus stands to amplify and enrich our knowledge of the history and uses of printing as well as of documents, it may also open some important questions for comparative media studies. Printed blanks point toward tensile connections among media forms. For one thing, they are print artifacts that incite manuscript, as James Green and Peter Stallybrass have noted. For another, the script they incite can be prompted by oral communication, as census enumerators write down on forms what they are told by people, for instance, or as corporate managers—in the name of scientific management—learned in the early twentieth century to direct their underlings on memo blanks with printed headings like "Verbal orders don't go" and "Don't say it, write it." And if blanks help to demonstrate as well as to ensure the continued interdependence of the oral, the written, and the printed, then they also raise questions about the digital. Today blanks are increasingly encountered online, where the interface is often designed to look like nineteenth-century job printing on paper, notwithstanding the data architecture and manipulability that lie behind or beneath that interface. Going still further, Alan Liu has suggested that we might think of every online text object as an already filled-in blank, because of the ways that metadata necessarily direct and delimit (that is, encode) the appearance and behavior of text on screen: Metadata make the blank, and data are poured in. By this account nineteenth-century job printing and its fillable blanks offer a glimpse of an extended history of information, presenting one context (certainly among many) for the supposed distinction between form and content—for the imagination of data as such—on which contemporary experiences of information technology so intuitively rely.

* * *

In what follows, I begin by describing nineteenth-century job printing in terms of its missing cohorts, especially readers and authors. Job printing must have escaped our attention for so long partly as a result of these curious fugitives, since without them job printing stands strangely at odds with the usual accounts—familiar schematics by now—of print publication and the bourgeois public sphere, those mutually constitutive formations of the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. Before I can address how job-printed blanks don't fit narratives of the public sphere, however, I should admit and elaborate that there are other printed blanks that do. I refer to the typographic representation of missing indexes—the dates, places, and particularly people who are so ostentatiously not named in English letters of the eighteenth century. Again it would probably be fruitless to search for the precise origins of this kind of blank, but there was fertile ground for such typography in the political satire and pamphleteering of the early century, when authorship—like so much of the literary marketplace—remained in formation. "We are careful never to print a man's name out at length; but, as I do, that of Mr. St—le," Jonathan Swift writes, "although everybody alive knows who I mean." Swift suggests that this is an evasion of authorial liability aimed at dodging prosecution for libel, but common recourse to not printing precisely what was commonly known also served to indicate the presence of potentially libelous statements, calling attention to them. These are nominal blanks in both a modern grammatical sense—they are missing names—and in the contemporary, Swift-era sense that they are not really blank but only virtually so: they are sites of transaction between a knowing author and a knowing reader within the public, published world of print. The same public knowledge that made names supposedly unprintable made them known to all and unnecessary to print, when "all" refers to the selective "everybody" of the public sphere.

Nominal blanks are complicated fictions, one might say, where the author gets to pretend or perform discretion within an elaborate game of "I know you know I know you know I know." Meanwhile the reader gets to identify with the author in the process of identifying the author's referent. Essential to this game are multiple social actors—authors, readers, publishers or booksellers—as well as a corresponding centripetal logic of printedness, the logic whereby publics are self-organized and communities self-imagined by dint of shared experiences of print publication. In short, readers and reading produce readerships. This is the familiarly ritual character of communication in operation; the characters of "I" and "you" enact a drama of shared presence inspired in part by a tacit understanding of the circulations of print. Sounds simple, but it's not.


Excerpted from Paper Knowledge by Lisa Gitelman. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Lisa Gitelman is Professor of English and of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. She is the author of Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture and Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era and the editor of "Raw Data" Is an Oxymoron and New Media, 1740–1915.

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