The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information by Craig Robertson - review by Robert Bickers

Robert Bickers

Mind Your Thumbs

The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information


University of Minnesota Press 313pp £27.99 order from our bookshop

I have five filing cabinets. They stand in a bank against one wall of my office, mute relics of a frantic period in the evolution of information storage and retrieval and, as Craig Robertson argues in this imaginatively conceived study, of understanding what information was. They are also symbolic of my own attempts to achieve order. Once upon a time, I used one or two of them properly. One is marked ‘Teaching’, and its four drawers were once arranged by course, and then by weekly class. Another one retains the contents of my second book. I can still swiftly retrieve material relating to a subject by opening the drawer, flicking the folders forward, scanning the metal tabs and extracting the contents. This is how they were meant to work.

Just as Robertson’s first book, The Passport in America (2010), prompted me to look afresh at each section of the booklet I carry when travelling, so his new one, almost impenetrably theoretical as it is at times, has prompted me to look again at these heavy metal cabinets. Have you ever really looked at a filing cabinet? I had not, except as a repository for logically ordered files, and for stashing in this drawer bits of equipment, in that one tea bags and suchlike, and in a third the pile of papers I collected when I tidied up the office and, rather than sort them or throw them away, opened a drawer and put them out of sight. And have you even thought about its name? It is not a ‘file cabinet’ but a ‘filing cabinet’: an instrument of activity, not a cupboard for hiding things out of sight.

The Filing Cabinet is very well illustrated with late 19th- and early 20th-century advertisements, catalogues and articles from filing magazines (a genre you may not be familiar with), images that ought to put me to shame. But then, as Robertson shows, as a man I really should not

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