Markus Krajewski


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

Cover Interview of January 30, 2012

The wide angle

Paper Machines outlines the story of the card index in manifold ways: as a library catalogue, as a collection for thinkers, and as a tool for office efficiency. And yet it outlines a whole genealogy from its primordial scene in 1548, when a Zurich based polymath named Conrad Gesner starts thinking about cutting information into pieces, up to 1929, the beginning of the electrical era in the office and the new age of data processing.

This book deals with the history of a crucial cultural technique which has been neglected so far, though it operates on the very basis of our intellectual life: freely moving around pieces of data on paper slips is one way to cope with the notorious information overflow.  Before the dawn of the computer age information was usually stored on paper, often kept in notebooks for further use. I argue that the card index is the obvious precursor of the computer as a data processing device.

Paper Machines unfolds the history of cutting those papers of thinking in pieces instead of keeping them in bound form, and how those mobile elements provide a specific advantage not only for data processing purposes or for library use. Furthermore paper slips serve as very basic as well as productive tools of thinking for both, more efficient handling and—what is more—for scholarly purposes.

The main thesis focuses on the often hidden, unmentioned learned practices which paper slips or index cards provide as a fundamental device for thinking. Paper Machines argues, beyond the long history of the book, in favor of an alternative genealogy of data processing and information flow which is—despite its elements—deeply rooted in our cultural technology.

The narrative makes a strong contribution to a new historiographical approach, i.e. developing an argumentation in an entertaining as well as theoretically challenging manner. That’s the way how media theory could be fun.

The nucleus for writing the history of the card index was set after I’d for some time been developing Synapsen, a software that serves as my personal hypertextual card index. While working on the code I wondered about the longer history of this very tool as a thinking device. And so, I started reading and researching.  First I read the sources which were already fed into my “Synapsen,” then I visited different archives and excerpted more material which gradually flooded my narrative.

But thanks to my software the line of argumentation could be saved from drowning—it could be even enriched and streamlined at the same time, due to my electronic card index which tended to write its own history almost without further help.