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?