Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Iron Whim

Not too many years ago one associated offices with the clacking sound of typewriters, although now we think of a steady hum of electronic devices (shut down the power source and listen to the difference in background noise). I am not sure at what point computer-generated records will catch up and surpass all those produced with the aid of the typewriter over more than a century, maybe that has already happened, but archives will always bear witness to the existence of the typewriter, the revolutionary office technology of the last third of the nineteenth century (just as they will pay homage to earlier forms of document production, such as the quill pen and iron gall ink).

Darren Wershler-Henry, an academic residing in a communications studies department, has given us an impressionistic history of the typewriter in his The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007). He sees the typewriter as a relic, providing meaning about a particular era, and one that provides a persistent memory of a portion of our society’s past. Go to a bookstore and search for books with a typewriter on the cover, he charges, and you’ll find far more than you could imagine: “The typewriter is the pre-eminent symbol for earnest, unalienated writing and one of the biggest visual cliché’s of our age” (p. 26). Its funny how personal computers of just a decade ago seem clunky and antiquated, whereas the typewriters of a century ago possess an enduring charm (imagine all those movies you have seen and reflect on how these various devices seem to age).

Wershler-Henry is not examining the history of the technology, but he is, instead, considering the history and impact of “typewriting,” and, for this reason, those interested in archives will want to read this book. This assessment by our intrepid scholar should demonstrate why: “The archive of documents produced by and about typewriters reveals different things than history of mechanical invention. It reveals the moments when typewriting became a phenomenon in its own right rather than an extension of something else. It identifies the ways in which typewriting began to modify our behavior, our social structures, and our very sense of ourselves. It even marks the moments when typewriting itself began to disappear and a new order to emerge” (p. 38). In this sense, archivists can easily point to the advent of mechanical devices in offices and in homes because of the shift from handwritten to typewritten documents. And this shift brought with it a number of social and cultural transformations partially explored in the pastiche of cases documenting the influence of typewriting in this book.

Iron Whim examines the writing about typewriting in manuals, management publications, literature, and the media all while considering how the typewriter or the notion of the use of the typewriter influences the creative process. At one point, Wershler-Henry indicates that “typewriting makes the question of authorship even more difficult to determine because it removes from the illusory certainty that a handwritten manuscript offers. Something dictates, someone types, and a page of standardized mechanical text appears” (p. 77). Throughout the volume, the reader will find discussions about the connection of typewriters with the growth of organizations, the use of women, advertising, efficiency studies, touch typing, the symbolic use of the typewriter, and the changes in typewriters and comparisons between the typewriter and the computer. His comparison with the computer is an interesting one, concluding, among other things, that “there are surface resemblances between typewriting and computing because the QWERTY keyboard has become our default interface for computing, but computing is a discourse, whose rules are determined by the functioning of software and networks, not by mechanical devices and hierarchies” (p. 273). With the latter observation, Wershler-Henry indicates that the “typewriter, like most technologies, is more of a highly stratified conglomerate of various half-assed solutions and dead ends than the shining culmination of a logical mechanical evolution, where rationality and common sense dominate at every turn” (p. 153). Iron Whim provides interesting glimpses into this long-lived document maker, one that some still use, enjoying its feel, while others at least have an old model sitting around as a reminder of things past and a different era of writing.