Markus Krajewski


On his book Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929

Cover Interview of January 29, 2012

In a nutshell

Today, on just about every desk there is a gray box emitting a range of wires.  Eighty years ago, this data processing box was less conspicuous, non-electronic, and made from wood—a literal paper machine.

My book explores the way this indexing “machine” set out on its triumphant march, entering offices and orderly rooms around 1930 as a universal and crucial instrument for data processing, and eventually transmuting into the “Universal Machine” known as the computer.

Paper Machines follows the development of the index card along its various historical breaches, beginning with the first references to the indexing of knowledge in early modern times.  The book examines the almost accidental introduction and gradual assertion of card index boxes in libraries around 1800 and glances at the production conditions of literature with the aid of index files, before suggesting a discursive transference between the institutions of writing—libraries and offices.

Among the book’s protagonists are—besides the Swiss polymath Conrad Gesner, one of the most influential classificators of the 16th century—Melvil Dewey, known as the father of the Decimal Classification System, and William Croswell, yet unknown as America’s laziest librarian, but inventor of Harvard College Library’s card catalog in 1812.

Paper Machines unfolds the long history of the index card from the Baroque Period to the dawning age of electronic communication in an unexpectedly amusing way: as a history of failures. It is an astonishing story, and not only for librarians, bibliophiles and historians of the art of unelectronic data processing.

Since this is a history of information pieces and how they relate to each other, the text may also be read in different—and probably uncommon—ways rather than simply chronologically.

The ideal way for reading the bound book would be to cut all the episodes into pieces, shuffle them, rearrange them into the specific idiosyncratic flow in which you would like to consume this story.  Mark the references you like most, link them to other passages within in the text and outside, draw connections to other stories and texts you know from different contexts or to those texts in your personal database. Implement this story about weaving information into your own network of knowledge production.