Markus Krajewski


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

Cover Interview of January 29, 2012

A close-up

A book is usually not considered a machine—though it is common to use paper as one of the book’s core elements and a machine to print its pages.

If you open a book called Paper Machines on page 95, you may read about an incident where nothing less than a historical change within the long tradition of economical bookkeeping was invented. This crucial scene took place in a Boston company called Library Bureau and it was lead by America’s foremost librarian of the 19th century: Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the famous library classification system.

Dewey’s secretary, E.W. Sherman, also plays a major role.  She used card catalogs not only for libraries but for her own commercial bookkeeping, and her visionary insight in applying library furniture to financial transactions leads to the ubiquitous spread of card indexes on every office desk around 1900.

However, this is only one small episode in a longer trajectory. Others could be mentioned.  For example, around 1700, the famous polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz stored his information in a specially designed cupboard on paper slips which were hooked on long battens, freely moveable and arrangeable in new orders. Or, the Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, Wilhelm Ostwald, sought to store all available information of all time and all nations at one single spot in Munich in a huge collection of index cards. This project, called The World Brain, began in 1911 and ended already in 1913 with a tiny collection of postcards of the Bavarian town of Ansbach.