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  • The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information by Craig Robertson
  • James Lowry
The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information
by Craig Robertson
PAPERBACK, $34.95 ISBN: 978-1-517-90946-8

Gripped by anxiety, I wrote to Information & Culture that I'd be delighted to review Craig Robertson's new book, The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information. Was this the book I'd hoped to write? A few pages into the preface, I was reassured by Robertson's experience of a number of people telling him that "the book I wanted to research—was researching, was writing, was revising for publication—had already been written. . . . How could I not know the work of business historian JoAnne Yates or the late media studies scholar Cornelia Vismann? Didn't I realize they had already written my book?" (xi).

The Filing Cabinet really is a new contribution to media and office history (and not the book I hope to write, as great as it is). Instead, Robertson's book uses the filing cabinet as a way into the study of information storage as shaped by the cultural values prevailing when the cabinet was at the height of its use: "In the early twentieth century an encounter with a filing cabinet was an interaction with an emerging set of economic ideas" (128). Themes of competitive advantage, efficiency in the use of time and space, and feminized labor emerge throughout the book to tie the technology of the cabinet to corporate capitalism, class, and heteropatriarchy.

The book is divided into two parts: "The Cabinet" and "Filing." The first part begins by exploring the verticality of the filing cabinet as a space-saving measure that also aesthetically related the cabinet to the skyscraper, with its connotations of modernity. Chapter 2 considers the filing cabinet's strength and concepts of integrity, beginning with a discussion of the development of various types of file folders that sought to organize and physically protect papers. The chapter locates these developments alongside the "age of steel," further illuminating the connections between the materiality of the cabinet, corporate capitalism, and modernity. It's in chapter 2 that we get some fascinating information on the lengths manufacturers went to to demonstrate their products' durability (in one example, using a room-sized furnace).

The third chapter looks at the internal organization of the cabinet, and here Robertson coins the term "cabinet logic" to describe the internal structuring of a cabinet's inner space through partitions that "made the particular visible" (25), achieving efficiency in time through faster retrieval and achieving efficiency in space through compressors that ensured files' verticality. Another highlight of the book is here: a history of the manila folder that surfaces the material networks of empire and capital that produced these apparently mundane objects.

Part 2, "Filing," pulls back from the object of the cabinet to consider the meanings around its use, with a chapter called "Granular Certainty" that places the cabinet in the context [End Page 360] of early twentieth-century moves toward the systematization of office work. This object-oriented look at scientific management should appeal to readers interested in organization studies or the history of records management as a profession, though records managers might reject some of Robertson's assertions—for example, that "white, middle-class women also attempted (and failed) to make filing a profession equivalent to librarianship" (26). Similarly, archivists may be disappointed that archival studies literature is absent from the book's reference list, which has been commented about in Robertson's work before.1

In "Automatic Filing," Robertson explores the machinic quality of the cabinet evoked in advertising materials and the office management literature of the time, where the cabinet is conceived of as a brain or site of corporate memory. Through allusions to automation, Robertson shows how the cabinet, as a labor-saving device, drives the labor of the clerk into the background. This leads to an examination of the gendering of information work in chapter 6. Here Robertson exposes how the cabinet and its associated activities existed within a gendered culture where the supposed dexterity...