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Gitelman, Lisa, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents.

Gitelman, Lisa, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2014, ISBN 9 7808 2235 6578, 224 pp., A$22.95.

Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents is a strong contribution to Lisa Gitelman's growing body of influential work in media studies and media archaeology, drilling down into an area largely unexplored by print culture studies or the history of communication: everyday and ephemeral documents in operation in the world. Part of Duke's Sign Storage and Transmission series, of which Gitelman and Jonathan Sterne are series editors, this book provides a cultural history of the document as an epistemic object, from commercial 'job' printing in the 1930s through to the portable document format file that has inherited centuries of thinking through with paperwork. Gitelman's attention is not on the content housed by various kinds of documents but on how the various formats work and the social functions they perform. Here she isn't thinking of the kinds of print culture heroes we are used to hearing about. Even within the 'genre' of the document, as she identifies it, her attention is not on the reified papers that have shaped human history, but on the mundane ephemera that is all around us, shaping our thinking, behaviour and labour.

In order to tell the story of the document, Gitelman chooses as case studies four brief but key moments in time, which reveal concepts that help us to understand something of the influence of containers of knowledge on our thinking processes. These seemingly mundane objects illuminate different qualities of the document and its contribution to epistemology. The case studies begin in the late nineteenth century with the 'jobbing press' era and the production of printed ephemera that found its way into the home as well as the workplace. The second case study concerns a media history of scholarly communication focusing on a short-lived and idiosyncratic plan for the reproduction of typescripts without letterpress printing in the 1930s. Here Gitelman likens the typescript reproduction to e-books in both process and product. The third case study, on the history of photocopy machines, returns to the notion of texts that are also pictures of themselves. Gitelman demonstrates the way concepts of xerography influenced the development of digital knowledge practices through her detailed account of the Pentagon

Papers controversy--an event that clearly resonates with WikiLeaks. In the final case study, Gitelman turns to portable document format (PDF) files, seeing them as electronic documents bound by and 'near print', in the mode of 'internality' and, mythically, 'beyond paper' (pp. 115, 116, 126).

As Gitelman herself points out, the case studies are thoroughly US-based. The gaps between the pinpoint case studies sing so loudly and demand an attention that the author cannot give. But the case studies that are there work in two directions: drilling down to the fine-grained detail of individual examples at the same time as extrapolating outwards to the level of genre, medium and format, providing critical attention to an element of our mediated lives by which we are surrounded and yet find so easy to ignore.

--Tully Barnett, Humanities and Creative Arts, Flinders University

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Author:Barnett, Tully
Publication:Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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