The Persistence of Paper

When most people think about revolutionary information technologies, they usually are reflecting about the latest digital systems. This often occurs because the advertising accompanying the new hardware or software promises it to be revolutionary, that, if purchased, it will change for the better your life. It is safe to say, however, that almost all such information technology shifts have been transformative. A recent spate of books about the development and use of paper, for example, have demonstrated this, even if some of these publications have been more nostalgic or romantic than scholarly.

Two relatively recent books have celebrated the wonders of paper. Irish writer Ian Sansom, Paper: An Elegy (New York: William Morrow, 2012), is “an attempt to show how and why humans became attached to paper and became engrafted and sutured onto and into it, so that our very being might be described as papery” (p. xix). Sansom ranges over a wide range of topics from the making of paper to its applications in maps, books, money, advertisements, architecture, art, toys and games, and containers. Amply illustrated and organized around stories, this is an entertaining book that underscores the importance of paper in society. Likewise, Nicholas A. Basbanes, the prolific commentator on books and book collecting, has covered the same range of topics in his On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand Year History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). Also amply illustrated, but based on a greater set of personal trips and interviews, Basbanes consistently supports just why paper has been so important to us for a vey long time. Some of his comments are particularly relevant to current events, such as, “Using documents to establish identity, ushered in an entirely new standard, and paper was the ideal medium with which to achieve consistency, The material was cheap, light, produced in abundance, and, because of its flexibility, portable – meaning it could be folded and carried about with ease” (pp. 153-154). The next time you are in conversation about important information technologies, these two books might help you make the case for paper. Of course, you could just point to one of the ubiquitous printers, dependent on the use of paper. attached to the computer network.

For a scholarly introduction to the importance of paper, Lothar Müller’s White Magic: The Age of Paper, trans. Jessica Spengler (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014) is the place to start: “This book explores the cultural techniques, infrastructure, and routines in which paper functions as a medium for storing and circulating words, images, and numbers” (p. xii). Müller considers the spread of the technology producing paper, the rise of paper mills and the factors leading to them (such as universities, government bureaucracies, merchants, and publishing), the influence of the postal system and growth of letter writing, allusions by writers to paper and its uses, emergence of the popular press, the establishment of archives, autograph collecting, and other symbols related to the establishment of paper as a communication medium. As Müller states, “It can also be helpful to look back on the history of paper because paper was never on its own; it always sought a symbiosis with other media” (p. 261). The author concludes, in the last sentence of his book, that the “Paper Age is not yet finished” (p. 263).

We should read such volumes because they remind us of the reasons why those of us in the information professions should possess a broad vision when it comes to understanding the use of media in our society. Bringing together multiple perspectives to study information is one of the primary purposes of an information school, although sometimes it seems to be a struggle to achieve this mission. Wider reading, more interdisciplinary research, and a diverse curriculum all will help to achieve this end.


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