What do Kindles, telegrams, and restaurant menus all have in common?
They are all documents.
In Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents, Lisa Gitelman explores significant historical events in which the use of a document, set of documents, or genre of documents was as key to the shaping of those events as the people who utilized them. Thus, she creates a brief history of the â€˜â€˜scriptural economyâ€™â€™ through anecdotes at its most crucial moments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Therefore, I will begin by asking a simple question- what is a document?
You probably all just rolled your eyes at that question, right? Well, this childish question has been analyzed, examined, and reconsidered for the past century.
Gitelman states that the word â€œdocumentâ€ comes from the Latin root docer, to teach or show, which suggests that the â€œdocument exists in order to document.â€
Additionally, Gitelman argues that â€œscriptural economyâ€ is an ever-expanding realm of human expression. The document can be manipulated, reproduced, counterfeited, saved, formatted etc. by people. Thus, communication has grown and transgressed across structural borders, from paper through photocopies, and into digital documents. Imagine all the documents you have in your possession right nowâ€¦you probably have your driverâ€™s license in your wallet, a PDF file saved on your laptop, and an electronic bank statement on your phone. Think about thatâ€¦all the different forms of documentation and means of communication you obliviously have on you at all times. Â
Paper Knowledge also largely focuses on printing. Gitelman argues that the nineteenth century job in printing is crucial to the history of media. Today, it still has never been fully defined what impact printers had on subjects, authors, editors etc. being printed. Therefore, many questions are still left unanswered in media history- Who was reading these prints? How were they being preserved? Etc.
Moreover, printing history can be traced through its transformation during Industrialization and itsâ€™ competition with smaller, amateur printers. Gitelman states that during the managerial revolution, secretaries in offices â€œproduced and reproduced documents as means of both internal and external forms of communicationâ€. Consequently, the 1930â€™s is recognized as an era of â€œnew media for the reproduction of documentsâ€. This can be seen through the use of mimeographs, hectographs, and microfilms.
Now letâ€™s fast-forward to the twenty-first century when â€œprintable documents on the webâ€ become widely popular- Gitelman argues that the PDF File is interesting because it is so sutured to the genre of the document: â€œall PDFâ€™s are documents, even if all digital documents are not PDFâ€™sâ€. Therefore, Gitelman continues to ask, â€œhow is the history of PDFs a history of documents, of paper and paperwork? And what are the assumptions about documents that have been built into PDF technology, and how does using that technology reinforce or reimagine the document?â€
Before reading this book, I was completely oblivious to the complexity of paper. Paper can be paradoxical, ephemeral, literal, figurative, theoretical etc. So, I ask you, what do you think the difference between paper and a document is? Where is the document going to be in the future and what new forms will it show up in? Lastly, will the tactile feature of the document be totally erased in the future? Gitelmanâ€™s description of a death certificate explains itsâ€™ physical characteristics, such as itsâ€™ raised intaglio printing, elaborate watermark, and thermochromic ink. She makes the argument that you do not just read this document but you â€œperform calisthenics with oneâ€. Will this phenomenon be lost in the future as society is moving toward a more digital, online presence?