The Complexities of Paper

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 ‘‘scriptural economy’’ 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 “document” comes from the Latin root docer, to teach or show, which suggests that the “document exists in order to document.”

Additionally, Gitelman argues that “scriptural economy” 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 now…you probably have your driver’s license in your wallet, a PDF file saved on your laptop, and an electronic bank statement on your phone. Think about that…all the different forms of documentation and means of communication you obliviously have on you at all times.  

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 its’ competition with smaller, amateur printers. Gitelman states that during the managerial revolution, secretaries in offices “produced and reproduced documents as means of both internal and external forms of communication”. Consequently, the 1930’s is recognized as an era of “new media for the reproduction of documents”. This can be seen through the use of mimeographs, hectographs, and microfilms.

Now let’s fast-forward to the twenty-first century when “printable documents on the web” become widely popular- Gitelman argues that the PDF File is interesting because it is so sutured to the genre of the document: “all PDF’s are documents, even if all digital documents are not PDF’s”. Therefore, Gitelman continues to ask, “how 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?”

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? Gitelman’s description of a death certificate explains its’ physical characteristics, such as its’ raised intaglio printing, elaborate watermark, and thermochromic ink. She makes the argument that you do not just read this document but you “perform calisthenics with one”. Will this phenomenon be lost in the future as society is moving toward a more digital, online presence?

7 Replies to “The Complexities of Paper”

  1. Great post Olivia! I was also struck by how Gitelman challenged us to think about paper and documents and it led me to think about how we read. If paper in its many forms is constantly changing, particularly in the digital age, will it change how we read paper and documents? Will future historians and other scholars have to change their approach to the study of these documents? Part of me thinks this is already happening and each generation adjusts with the times. However, could this eventually become an issue as future scholars try to study the past and the paper and other documents we leave behind?

  2. Thanks Olivia! There was so much in this book I didn’t know, and had never thought about. It was helpful to read what you got out of it! One thing that really surprised me was how controversial PDFs were. Then again, it made more sense of problems I’d had in the past with the file type.

    One idea Gitelman was circling was the idea of access vs archive. The whole idea of owning a copy and of creating your personal files as assurance of longevity and access and in doing so, unintentionally creating your own archive made me think about the way we collect ~things~ and how digital both obscures and amplifies this. We can collect even more but they’re hidden in digital folders on our own computers rather than filling up file cabinets. This doesn’t directly relate but kind of speaks to your question about the calisthenics being lost when moving towards digital. I think it is “lost” or at least changes… the CAPTCHA discussion is one way of thinking about how we move around and prod at a document in the name of security in the digital age. Of course then the whole rigamarole is about making sure humans aren’t bots— which is itself more depressing, maybe, than fear of copies. I think too that your point about each generation working through this is well taken and points to Gitelman’s discussion of how PDFs were reactionary and not revolutionary. What’s lost by trying to make new technology make sense in terms of what is already known. One aspect of this is thinking about how we reuse language—for example the discussion we had a few weeks ago of the masculine language of mining and hacking used in digital humanities). More relevant might be thinking about how we use the word “paper” or “page” in both print and digital to recycle terminology we understand for new technology.

    1. Maren, I really like what you said at the end of this comment about how we recycle terminology we understand for new technology. This trend is something that I find really interesting beyond our current conversation, but it is especially relevant in terms of paper because paper is not obsolete. I think it is perfectly reasonable to recycle terminology, but when the recycled terminology is recycled from something that still exists in its own right, rather than for something that new technology replaced, it usage gets sticky. I don’t foresee the words “paper” or “page” in digital to go away, but I agree with you that it is important to understand why we use those terms and what that means for both print and digital materials.

  3. Olivia, your question “what do you think the difference between paper and a document is?” really got me thinking about not only what I saw as the difference, but also what the general public thinks of as the difference. As a public historian and an avid museum-goer, I often think of documents as the “real history.” In my—and I know many museum-goers’ minds—documents are the real pieces of paper that make up history. This equating of realness with paper gets really messy when digital comes into play. What does it mean for museums and exhibits when much of the source material is born-digital? Will the most authentic experience be to display it digitally or print it out? How will that affect user engagement with that material. I know a lot of exhibits use facsimiles of documents, but it has been my experience that a lot of visitors do not know what a facsimile is or, given that it is a close-to-identical copy in the same format, do not care. I imagine the transition to viewing born-digital documents as the authentic historical source will be a bit messy, given our relationship to paper, but it is certainly something that we as history practitioners and members of an extremely digital society must accept and work to overcome.

  4. Thanks so much for this post! I really like Gitelman’s concept of a “scriptural economy.” It reminds me a lot of what is talked about in the “Art of the Glitch” video linked to in Professor Owen’s article. In it, they talk about how glitching helps us understand our cultural values associated with our technology. With glitch art, the communication expands across structural boarders by tearing down the structures themselves–the code that makes up a document or file. I find this very fascinating. The video likens glitch art to punk music, and I somewhat agree with that comparison as glitch art breaks down the rigid code (literally) that makes up our technology, and in this a new form of communication is born.

  5. Great questions at the end Olivia! Think at the beginning of Paper Knowledge, Gitelman asserts the need for printable documents for cultural applications and record-keeping. No matter the allure of paperless, digital exchanges of information, printable documents are not going to fade out anytime soon. If just for the mere ritual of using paper, the comfort in it will help secure its relevance in our digital society. That’s partly my opinion sprinkled with Gitelman’s arguments.

    However, I also wonder how digital-born sources versus paper will influence the preservation and publishing of original materials? Bailey discusses in TAGOKOR the complexities that go into custodial history and publishing of digital records. He mentioned how the record series will eventually have parallel histories, one describing the object, while another describes its journey. With each stage of transactions, preservation efforts, etc., the published version becomes more and more distant from the original. I wonder if digital-born documents will prevent so many layers of the process before publishing. In that case, I can see paper usage reducing significantly just for that convenience.

  6. Emily, I’m really interested in the questions you posed: “What does it mean for museums and exhibits when much of the source material is born-digital? Will the most authentic experience be to display it digitally or print it out?”

    My initial thought was that maybe someday we’ll be so far removed from the world of paper documents that it would be more natural to display some sort of digital rendering of a born-digital document than a printed copy, but that that day is so far off as to be virtually impossible for me to think about. If I think something is worth preserving and displaying, at the moment, I’m printing it. But then again, it can’t be long now until museums that relate the history of our own era have many Tweets, not just a few, among their primary documents, and the idea of printing out a Tweet is completely absurd to me (in a bad way). We can’t just print every noteworthy Tweet onto the wall—there are really only so many walls. Are the future museums that will document our modern era just going to have to be extremely screen-heavy? Is our era just pretty screen-heavy? Olivia mentions the loss of the physical characteristics of a paper document—how will our born-digital documents make up for for their inherent lack of intrinsic physicality, if at all?

    It’s interesting to contemplate these questions with the understanding that a while back, our museum-imagining predecessors would have had no concept of the screens featured in our current exhibit designs at all. It would probably have been difficult to imagine paper’s hegemony ever fading. In the same way I suppose the answers will become clear—to the point of appearing inevitable—in time.

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