Paper Knowledge and LIS research

Photo: The Records and Files Department of the Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa

The Records and Files Department of the Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa (March 1945) by Chris Lund. Canada. National Film Board of Canada. Library and Archives Canada, PA-144872.
Available under CC-BY 2.0 license on Flickr

Many of us know of Marcia Bates for “berrypicking,” a theory of information behavior. In addition to extensive writing and research on information organization and information behavior, Bates theorized what she called the “meta-role” of information science relative to other professions. In “The Invisible Substrate of Information Science” (1999), she writes:

Information science, like education and journalism, among others, is a field that cuts across, or is orthogonal to, the conventional academic disciplines. All three of the above-named fields deal with distinct parts of the transmission of human knowledge–information science with the storage and retrieval of it in recorded form, education with the teaching and learning of it, and journalism with the discovery and transmission of news. Under these circumstances, such fields cut across all of what we might call “content” disciplines.

I suspect that many of us are drawn to librarianship and information studies as ways to forge connections to a lot of different fields, using LIS as a framework for inquiry. LIS scholarship has its own theories and theorists who themselves build on the theoretical foundations of other disciplines. Media studies, another “orthagonal” discipline, sees its scholars deploying their methods to investigate a wide variety of subjects and objects. Couldn’t LIS scholarship do the same?

Lisa Gitelman’s book Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke University Press, 2014) is chock full of starting points and nascent research questions for librarians and LIS students interested in developing a scholarly agenda. How this works will depend on your program. Do you have a thesis option or requirement? How about an independent study? Even the loathsome term paper is a chance to explore personally interesting topics (making it less of a pain).

Here are a few access points for students of different interests, values, and goals to start digging into the book, making connections to existing LIS scholarship and pursuing additional research.

Documenting Organizational Culture

Gitelman writes, “Documents are important not because they are ubiquitous, I should be clear, but because they are so evidently integral to the ways people think and live” (p. 4). She writes at length about blank forms, historically printed to precise specifications by “job printers,” each blank designed for a different purpose. Even before they’re filled out, blanks speak to the universe of document-based transactions and its sheer variety. So what does archival theory, specifically appraisal, have to say about the value of a blank form? How do blank forms figure in documenting the life of an organization, or the interactions between citizens and government?

“Amateur” Print and Publishing Culture

Gitelman writes that, even though she gets a lot of questions about zines, they’re actually outside the scope of her book. Still, Paper Knowledge ends with an afterword on zines and amateur print culture. Gitelman asks, “Are the amateurs of one era the amateurs of another? Is do-it-yourself (DIY) publishing whenever and however you happen to do it?” (p. 143). It’s a good question for anyone interested in studying zines, blogging, and other kinds of self-publishing. What social, political, and technological influences distinguish these practices and cultures from amateur publishing of the past? As boundaries blur today between amateur and professional publishing, what meaningful distinctions emerge that might speak less to money and tools and more to ethos?

Scholarly Communication and Editions

The transmission of texts and what constitutes a copy are threads running through Paper Knowledge, suggesting possible research areas for LIS students interested in scholarly communication and its upheavals. Gitelman’s case studies include A Commentary on the Sixth Edition UNIX Operating System (1977) — written by John Lions and widely copied and distributed — and a 1936 Manual on Methods of Reproducing Research Materials by Robert Binkley, a historian working on behalf of the Joint Committee on Materials for Research. The contrast between Lions’ Commentary — self-published, photocopied and freely distributed for editing by UNIX users — and Binkley’s carefully prepared and printed Manual has echoes in how digital editions work today. Imagining new “afterlives” for publications is one possible line of inquiry here.

Other issues digital scholarship has raised, including weird holdovers from print book language and our tendency to think and count in pages, show up in Chapter Four’s discussion of PDF and ebooks. Gitelman points to a set of cultural assumptions expressed in the design of interfaces for electronic documents, with consequences for information institutions if documents and books continue to make up the bulk of our collections and currency. (Read more about PDFs, preservation, and Paper Knowledge in Trevor Owens’ interview with Gitelman at The Signal.)


These three trains of thought only scratch the surface. For example, Paper Knowledge also features a step-by-step walk through Daniel Ellsberg’s photocopying methods and a funny few pages on nominal blanks (e.g. “Mr. F_____”) in “The Purloined Letter.” Gitelman isn’t aiming for comprehensiveness in Paper Knowledge — it’s neither the first nor the only history of documents — but instead to offer provocations and prompts for future research. This post is a breezy tour through a dense book that rewards close reading. I’d love to see LIS students digging into some of the myriad topics, tidbits, and observations packing Paper Knowledge to the brim.

— Amy Wickner (@amelish)

4 replies

  1. I haven’t read this but I enjoyed Gitelman’s interview on the New Books podcast network. Really interesting stuff, but as classmates in our program get to their capstone course (and, from what I gather, hate it), I wonder how limited interest is among people mostly concerned with professional librarian/archivist training. This seems like the sort of work that starts to separate the L from the IS.


    • Christian, right on. People have all kinds of reasons for going to library school and many of them just aren’t interested in the secret lives of documents. (Certainly most of them have long since lost interest in that capstone class!) Generally, I think research should grow out of curiosity about (for example) how something works / doesn’t work / could work, not out of unfurling a flag for Theory or Practice. So I would love to see evidence that MLIS programs foster that kind of curiosity whether or not students start out interested in research. And also, I would like a unicorn.


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