19th century lenses (originally posted 3-12-2010)

I guess I’m fairly often overheard saying I became a historian because I got so old I remember everything. It’s a little bit true. After all, I learned to catalog using AACR1 (blue cover) writing on 3×5 cards; then graduated to typing on 3×5 cards, that would go off to another division someplace to be reproduced. I then became a librarian at Illinois where we had legions of card typists who did that part; we the catalogers would type on worksheets, which gave us more space for our reviewers to write in red ink all over our cataloging. “No double punctuation!” When major changes came–such as the shift from “negroes” to both “Blacks” and “African-Americans” in LCSH, we had to pull thousands of cards, and all of the main entry cards that went with them, erase, and re-type and refile them. We had truly armies of card filers in every division of the library whose job was all day long just to file the thousands of cards we produced every day.

That was the information society as people in cataloging knew it (in part) in the 1970s. All of that has passed away into the dimness of memory. And yet what a feat of engineering it took for those armies of people, all of whom understood the physics of the syndetic structure of the catalog, to maintain bibliographic control.

History is useful of course, not just for telling the story of the past, but for understanding the present and the future as well. We are situated historically in every moment, and the better we understand the circumstances of that situation the better job we will do pushing society and our own domain forward.

I am doing a lot of work right now on 21st century phenomena with lenses produced in the late 19th century. Their usefulness became clear only once technology brought us to this point. Yet these thinkers–specifically Otlet, Peirce, and Husserl are the folks I’m working with at the moment–saw clearly how the problems that engaged them were historically situated. Well enough that when the time came we discovered the lenses they’d provided.

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Posted November 17, 2010 by lazykoblog in phenomenology

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