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.
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.