Joseph Leiter Lecture with Craig Robertson

Craig Robertson, PhD, gave us a look into the history of information in his Joseph Leiter Lecture. His upcoming book is about the vertical filing cabinet, and its role in information management as well as the growth of information. Robertson put a magnifying glass on the fine details, emphasizing the usefulness of loose paper stored on its edge, as compared with the less useful form of loose papers—papers in a stack. He discussed the context of the emergence of the filing cabinet. An invention of the 1890s, the filing cabinet came about during a period of accelerated advancement in technology and industry overall. In the time of assembly lines—of increasing efficiency—the filing cabinet fit into the narrative and practices of the industrial world.

Robertson displayed filing cabinet advertisements from the early 1900s in his lecture slides.  The advertisements promoted the cabinets as incredibly physically durable, and as time-saving machines—giving businesses access to the information (paper) they needed in just a moment. The discussion of the file cabinet as a time-saver reminded me of the well-known librarian Ranganathan, who listed “save the time of the reader” as one of the five laws of library science.

Another topic of discussion in the lecture was the role of file clerks in American businesses.  The role of file clerk was gendered, with young, unmarried women being the primary demographic of the profession. Their role typically involved information location and delivery, but not information processing—clerks were not meant to grasp or interpret information themselves. Society’s values of efficiency and gendered roles, Robertson illustrated, were reinforced in file clerk jobs.

Robertson made the point that the filing cabinet made information functional—so functional that they were even described as “alive.” They quickly came to serve as the memory bank for institutions, as human memory could not keep up with the expanding scale of business. Robertson’s lecture provided insights into how information has been perceived of, stored, and utilized over time. While acknowledging that library card catalogs’ invention predated the filing cabinet by 10-15 years, Robertson makes the case that the filing cabinet was more widely impactful in the history of information.