Filing Cabinets, a Neglected Piece of Business History

Friday, January 4, 2013

As reference librarian in the Imprints Department, I am sometimes surprised that Hagley owns even one item about a particularly obscure topic. Other times, I am surprised at the depth of our holdings on a seemingly mundane topic. Last September, Professor Craig Robertson came to Hagley and proceeded to request catalog after catalog of office equipment! During his two-day visit, Imprints staff pulled more than 145 catalogs for him.

Dr. Robertson is an associate professor of media history at Northeastern University. He explained to us that he is currently researching the early history of the filing cabinet (1890s-1930s). Robertson contends that the filing cabinet has been largely neglected in the history of information technologies, with punch card machines (a clearer precursor to computers) taking a leading role in histories of early 20th century information technologies—this despite the importance of “files” and folders” to how we organize information on computers.

He said that trying to think about the filing cabinet as “technology” means thinking about how it works, what skills it required, and who operated it. In short, trying to figure out the “protocols” associated with the filing cabinet and the problems that people believed it would solve. He said that the trade catalogs at Hagley provide much to think about in this regard.

Robinson explained that the filing cabinet was relatively novel in that it made retrieval of paper records an important part of how they were stored. This responded to the early 20th century argument that a successful business needed to have all possible information at its fingertips. Many advertisements and catalogs simply showed a woman’s fingers flicking through files in an open cabinet drawer, with a caption indicating that a filing cabinet provided “rapid retrieval” and allowed a business to “remember.”

As his research continues Professor Robertson hopes his examination of the early history of the filing cabinet will provide more insights into the changing nature of the office in the early 20th century and changes in how people came to think about information. Hagley holds a variety of Remington Rand office supply trade catalogs, which can be accessed via the Hagley Digital Archives.

Linda Gross is the Reference Librarian in the Imprints Department at Hagley Museum & Library