Lisa Gitelman, “Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents” (Duke UP, 2014)


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“One doesn’t so much read a death certificate, it would seem, as perform calisthenics on one…”

From the first, prefatory page of Lisa Gitelman‘s new book, the reader is introduced to a way of thinking about documents as tools for creating bodily experience, and as material objects situated within hierarchies and relationships of labor. Working beautifully at the intersection of media studies and history, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke University Press, 2014) curates a thoughtful and inspiring collection of moments from the expansion of a modern “scriptural economy.” The case studies explore fill-in-the-blank forms in the context of late nineteenth century job printing, typescript books and scholarly communication in the 1930s, photocopies and photocopying in the 1960s and 1970s, and PDF files in the 1990s and beyond. The final chapter is a fascinating exploration of what it might look like to write a situated history of amateurdom and the figure of the “amateur,” a theme that recurs throughout the preceding chapters. Though all of these cases are carefully rooted within a US context, the insights gleaned from them potentially apply to a much wider and trans-local conversation about the documentary media of writers and readers. It is a history of documenting as an epistemic practice and documents as instruments, and that history is consistently and productively entangled with concerns about reproduction, access, labor, and the emergence of a bureaucratic self. Along the way, Paper Knowledge helpfully opens up some persistent historiographical notions that benefit from such opening, such as “print culture,” “digital humanities,” “authorship,” and other categories that have defined the history of and with communication, and that animate contemporary debates within academia and beyond.

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