Rev.: Foscarini on Craig Robertson, The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information

Kathleen Sheldon's picture

Fiorella Foscarini. Review of Robertson, Craig, The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021.

Cross-posted from H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. December, 2022.
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I found the entire review very interesting (see link above), but H-Women subscribers will appreciate these paragraphs:

“As the filing cabinet mechanized remembering, so the typewriter mechanized writing” (p. 177). This parallel introduces gender as “a formative category in the organization of the office,” together with “class, race, age, and sexuality,” as both filing and typing were performed almost exclusively by young middle-class white women in the twentieth century’s modern office (p. 195). The book contains dozens of images from historical postcards, brochures, catalogs, and other published materials used to promote specific brands of filing cabinets, as well as filing as a profession, which all portray women, or their disembodied hands, in the act of operating this new office equipment. Women’s information labor in the office was similar to the work they did at home; that is, it was aimed at assisting men so that they could do the more lucrative thinking, or knowledge work.

Robertson’s discussion of the “ideal file clerk” not only sheds light on how information labor came to be seen as a “gendering practice—to perform information labor is to do a woman’s work”; it also explains how the “idea that filing involved nothing more than putting papers away and retrieving them on demand” became dominant (pp. 176, 218). This idea, I would add, is still with us, as shown by the low professional standing of most records managers and archivists in contemporary organizations.


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