On Paper (and Documents)

Before we delve into Paper Knowledge, just a note to say that I hope you’re all staying safe in these wild times! Please feel free to reach out to me for anything: course-related, or if you’re just feeling lonely.

My last few brain cells trying to hold it together after this week

But for now, I hope we can all distract ourselves for a bit by working through the complex (and fascinating!) issues posed in Paper Knowledge. Gitelman offers an alternative form of media history in this book by studying documents and paper. In addressing four specific episodes of the past 150 years, she fleshes out the history of what she calls the scriptural economy, or “the totality of writers, writings, and writing techniques that began to expand so precipitously in the nineteenth century.” These episodes represent moments when new devices and media were created specifically for the production and reproduction of writing – which in turn gave meaning to the documents that were being produced.

So this leads us to one of Gitelman’s main questions: what exactly is a document?

I must admit this question, though seemingly SO simple, kind of blew my mind. Gitelman offers a few definitions, all centered around the idea that the core function of a document is its “know-show function.” In other words, the purpose of a document is to, well, document. Documents are framed and reframed, produced and reproduced, to serve as evidence; they thus become meaningful in these ways. Under this definition, as Gitelman shows throughout the book, we can view even unexpected things like receipts, ledgers, and tickets as veritable documents. Gitelman shows how these documents were and are “integral to the ways people think as well as to the social order that they inhabit.”

An interesting facet of Gitelman’s argument is how deeply paper is tied up in the meaning of documents. She examines how people often confuse “the text” and “the work” when thinking of documents, which becomes especially complex in the digital age when documents are often on Kindles, iPads, etc. What exactly is the relationship – and difference – between paper and documents? How has this become murkier with the rise of digital technology?

Gitelman looks to history in an attempt to answer some these questions, and also brings up matters concerning access. In the 1920s and 30s, she shows, academics and managerial workers both began to explore new ways to reproduce paper documents. Universities, using new technology such as microfilm, began to make these documents available to a wider scholarly community. Secretaries using tools such as mimeographs reshaped how documents were used “as means of both internal and external forms of communication.” This trend, in which new media were used to expand the production and reproduction of documents, extended through the use of the Xerox machine in the 60s and copy shops throughout the rest of the twentieth century. These advancements have muddled the line between documents and paper, all while (sometimes) making documents more accessible – and perhaps more meaningful?

Gitelman frames the final chapter of the book, on the rise of the PDF, as cumulative of this history and the issues it raises. She asks us: “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?” I’d love to hear your own thoughts about these questions in the comments. Gitelman, for her part, leaves no doubt that the history of paper and documents has shaped digital technology, and that digital technology has and will continue to shape our perception of paper and documents.

4 Replies to “On Paper (and Documents)”

  1. Thanks for a great post, Jenna! Gitelman had many great points about the history of documents as a method to preserve or reproduce writing in history. Her work made me reconsider what I had taken for granted, both what constitutes a document and where digital technology has shaped that very definition. As to the questions you bring up that she poses, I feel like the acceptability of a PDF as a file form today speaks to its representation as a history of documents, paper, and paperwork. All throughout college, I was told to convert Word documents into PDFs because it was assumed a PDF would not mess up any formatting choices I had made when the document was opened on another computer. This makes sense, as Gitelman points out, because the pdf format does look the most similar to a printed, unchangeable page. I think she also answers her own question regarding how technology reinforces the authority of a document– by creating a format that is used to preserve the printed look of a document we have asserted the very authority of a document.

  2. Great summary of the book! This reading definitely opened up my mind a bit to thinking about how we engaged with documents every day and what that means. I found Gitelman’s points about evolving methods and technologies and how they changed what a document means or how people engaged with them very interesting. To your question, I think one of the trends in Gitelman’s book is showing how different methods or technologies made these documents, in their original format, more accessible to a wider audience, and the digital PDF is the next stage of that, a near perfect preservation of a document in a digital format.


  3. Jenna, this is a great exploration of the issues Gitelman is raising!

    I really love how this book ends up showing us how a bunch of the parts of how PDFs perform “document-ness” in this really important way. They way they focus on page layout and structure. The way they try to work with signatures. Are all part of that “know show” function. I also really appreciate the way Gitelman draws our attention to all the kinds of printing that folks tend not to think about in the history of printing. Things like printing forms, certificates, etc. So much of the nature of the PDF is about replicating those kind of form functions, designating what can be filled in and how.

    If anyone is interested, I interviewed Gitelman about a lot of these issues a few years back when the book came out ( https://blogs.loc.gov/thesignal/2014/06/the-pdfs-place-in-a-history-of-paper-knowledge-an-interview-with-lisa-gitelman/ )

    As a question to the group, I’m curious to hear any connections folks see between how Gitelman explains the PDF and how Sterne explained the MP3. Both end up being stories about formats that connect back into longer histories of form, function, users, creators, etc. What kinds of connections do you all see there?

  4. Great post Jenna! I found Gitelman’s analysis of amateurdom and professional publication through the medium of zines really interesting. In particular, her point that these two things aren’t really mutually exclusive – professional publishing was itself amateur at one point as it developed the standardization that would distinguish it from amateur work, and what constitutes amateur work has changed over time. This kind of framing is helpful for thinking about digital products as well. What standards do “professional” digital products adhere to in order to distinguish themselves, and does this truly make them opposites of “amateur” work? Gitelman points out that certain assumptions about this division are too limiting for digital products, based as they are in ideas about paper documents.

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