Sunday, June 12, 2005

Research Conundrum: Cataclysm and documentation

I've run into a bit of a snag. As I gaily pursue my research topic--technical handbooks from two specific eras--I find myself constantly returning to the earlier era. It's possible that I just prefer the era but I suspect my return is because there is so much research available. It seems contradictory: How can there be more information available about publishing conditions in the 1600s than there is from the last century? My only response is to say: "there is."

I'm reminded of Paul Rosen's criticisms of the SCOT program of research. Contrasting his own research on mountain bikes to Bijker's research on the "safety bicycle" of the nineteenth century, Rosen claimed that relevant social groups had not yet emerged from the story of the mountain bike to make a SCOT approach feasible. I'm seeing similar things with publishing.

The era of the theatrum machinarum is now well documented. We have statements from contemporary publishers and users (e.g., Hooke), and whole collections of critical materials. I can turn to Bagioli or Shapin and Schaffer or Eisenstein or Johns. Each of these casts insights directly relevant to a SCOT analysis of technical handbooks. Of course, that other criticism of SCOT emerges: perhaps the publishing world depicted by these authors isn't actually reflective of the conditions of the era but rather of their own academic whims. At the very least, however, I still have something to write about!

Turning my attention to the last century and the various editions of Architectural Graphic Standards, things become much murkier. I'm reminded of Johns's comments in his "The Nature of the Book":

"In short, The Nature of the Book claims that the very identity of print itself has to be made. It came to be as we now experience it only by virtue of hard work, exercised over generations and across nations. That labor has long been overlooked, and is not now evident. But its very obscurity is revealing. It was dedicated to effacing its own traces, and necessarily so: only if such effort disappeared could printing gain the air of intrinsic reliability on which its cultural and commercial success could be built. Recovering it is therefore a difficult task, but one well worth attempting." (Pg. 2-3)

Johns, of course, is referring to the literature from the dawn of the scientific revolution. His comments are just as relevant to a more recent era of publishing. For example, John Wiley and Sons--the publisher of AGS--has received very little critical commentary. Despite being a behemoth in the world of scientific and technical publishing they have gone without notice. In essence, Wiley has "effaced its own traces." The most recent work published about Wiley is from 1982. Far from being a critical commentary, "One hundred and seventy five years of publishing" is a self-congratulatory pean. I can glean information from Wiley's annual reports and 10-K filings but these sources of information are far from critical and won't reveal any insight into the actual functioning of the organization. It seems that I'm left with the option of hitting the phones and conducting interviews with Wiley "experts". So much for "domain analysis" of "documentary sources"!

While Wiley lurks in shadows, I've found considerably more information about one of the AGS precursors: Sweet's catalogue. The information I has was able to uncover had far more to do with scandal and glitter than with critical commentary. Clinton W. Sweet founded the catalogue and then sold the enterprise to F.W. Dodge. Later, Sweet committed suicide leaving sizable inheritances for his two sons. F.W. Dodge, meanwhile sold out to McGraw-Hill. One of Sweet's sons, in turn, married an heiress of the McGraw family in a society wedding. While this information is quite interesting, it is hardly the sort of commentary that would support a SCOT analysis! I suppose Marc Bloch's comment that historians need a good cataclysm for the maintenance of the documentary record is bang on.


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