The Filing Cabinet

A Vertical History of Information

2021
Author:

Craig Robertson

The history of how a deceptively ordinary piece of office furniture transformed our relationship with information

Craig Robertson explores how the filing cabinet profoundly shaped the way that information and data have been sorted, stored, retrieved, and used. The filing cabinet emerges here as a sophisticated piece of information technology and a site of gendered labor that with its folders, files, and tabs continues to shape how we interact with information and data in today’s digital world.

How we store information reflects the aspirations we have about what to remember. Taking this idea to heart, Craig Robertson's essential history of the filing cabinet is the definitive account of verticality and efficiency as guiding principles for corporate capitalism.

Melissa Gregg, senior principal engineer, Client Computing Group, Intel

The ubiquity of the filing cabinet in the twentieth-century office space, along with its noticeable absence of style, has obscured its transformative role in the histories of both information technology and work. In the first in-depth history of this neglected artifact, Craig Robertson explores how the filing cabinet profoundly shaped the way that information and data have been sorted, stored, retrieved, and used.



Invented in the 1890s, the filing cabinet was a result of the nineteenth-century faith in efficiency. Previously, paper records were arranged haphazardly: bound into books, stacked in piles, curled into slots, or impaled on spindles. The filing cabinet organized loose papers in tabbed folders that could be sorted alphanumerically, radically changing how people accessed, circulated, and structured information.



Robertson’s unconventional history of the origins of the information age posits the filing cabinet as an information storage container, an “automatic memory” machine that contributed to a new type of information labor privileging manual dexterity over mental deliberation. Gendered assumptions about women’s nimble fingers helped to naturalize the changes that brought women into the workforce as low-level clerical workers. The filing cabinet emerges from this unexpected account as a sophisticated piece of information technology and a site of gendered labor that with its folders, files, and tabs continues to shape how we interact with information and data in today’s digital world.

Craig Robertson is associate professor of media studies at Northeastern University and author of The Passport in America: The History of a Document.

How we store information reflects the aspirations we have about what to remember. Taking this idea to heart, Craig Robertson's essential history of the filing cabinet is the definitive account of verticality and efficiency as guiding principles for corporate capitalism.

Melissa Gregg, senior principal engineer, Client Computing Group, Intel

Craig Robertson’s book offers a fascinating account of how the humble file cabinet and the associated practice of filing shaped the emergence of modern conceptions of information. These influences continue to reverberate—from the organization of our computer desktops to our assumptions about ‘information’ as a discrete entity that can be stored, manipulated, and retrieved. A significant contribution to media studies and information studies.

Jennifer S. Light, Massachusetts Institute of Technology*

In this fascinating history, Craig Robertson shows how a seemingly mundane thing was central to the rise of modern bureaucracies, information society, and the gendered relations of office labor. Wonderfully researched and full of surprises, The Filing Cabinet explores an object and a system that orchestrated new ways of knowing, remembering, and experiencing the world.

Lynn Spigel, Northwestern University

(The filing cabinet) worked to blur the past into the present with active storage; and the future into the present by encouraging forethought. The Filing Cabinet would be particularly helpful for researchers who want to write about media materialism without getting lost in the minutiae of model numbers.

The London School of Economics

Preface


Introduction: The Efficient Work of Paperwork


Part I. The Cabinet


1. Verticality: A Skyscraper for the Office


2. Integrity: Paper’s Steel Enclosure


3. Cabinet Logic: Efficiency through Partitions


Part II. Filing


4. Granular Certainty: Applying System to the Office


5. Automatic Filing: Memory for the Machine


6. The Ideal File Clerk: Controlling Gender in the Office


7. Domestic Storage: Cabinet Logic in the Home


Afterword: Out of Time, Out of Place


Acknowledgments


Notes


Index