Friday, June 10, 2005

Thoughts on handbooks

Aase Karina (1999) produced a rather interesting manuscript on handbooks. She explored the role of organizational handbooks in the formation of corporate knowledge. Her work with a North Sea oil producer followed the companies attempts to create new handbooks for organizational procedures. While Karina clearly studies a type of handbook distinct from technical handbooks such as AGS, some of her comments have relevance.

After interviewing a number of handbook users, Karina notes:

“The new handbooks were developed based on structural rearrangement of old documents. Respondents’ viewpoints demonstrated that the content reflected ‘old ways of thinking’ and that current problems were not treated in handbooks.” (Pg. 234)

This interesting observation—that handbooks are just compilations of old material—has led to me to a question. Are handbooks just collections of old material?

Archictectural Graphic Standards is clearly rooted in older material. Pai (2002), for example, refers to AGS as a “hybrid of the construction manual and the catalogue.” (Pg. 201) Of particular importance for AGS was (and possibly is) Sweet’s Catalogue, a compilation of trade catalogues published by McGraw-Hill, the archrival of AGS publisher John Wiley and Sons. [Although this may have been historically contingent]

The theatrum machinarum seem to be something different from this modern conception of handbook as compiled diagrammatic nostalgia. Ferguson indicates that Renaissance technical books took on two very different forms. Agricola (1912), for example, documented actual working conditions and techniques and attempted to disseminate this knowledge [translation by future president Herbert Hoover!]. Authors like Ramelli and Besson created fantastic works more rooted in imagination than practice. From this perspective, the theatrum machinarum are completely novel. Or are they?

Ramelli and Besson have been plagiarized in many subsequent handbooks by authors like Leupold (see details in previous entries). Their ideas may not, however, have been completely novel. Reti (1963), for example, notes that there is considerable resonance between the theatrum machinarum and the manuscripts of Franceso di Giorgio, and that Leonardo’s work may have had considerable influence on Ramelli (1972). Leonardo and di Georgio aren’t even isolated from each other (Long, 2004). Even the work of di Giorgio, however, may not have been completely original. He did, however, have the distinct advantage of being first on the scene after the creation of linear perspective so to our modern eyes he just seems to the original. In the work of di Giorgio we can see something of earlier technical manuscripts such as that of Anonymous of the Hussite Wars, Taccola, Kyeser, or even in the manuals of the gun-masters of the 1400s (Leng, 2004). Even in these works we see some resonance with one of the earliest technical manuscripts, the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt (McGee, 2004; Shelby, 1972). And then we just run out of documentary evidence. It seems likely, however, that even Villard’s work was the result of copying other manuscripts from the various work sites that he visited and that the work practices of the early masons may have been informed by other documentary practices now largely lost to us (Camerota, 2004; Lefèvre, 2004; Turnbull, 2000).

So maybe all handbooks have a bit of the scriptoria still lingering about them. Maybe they are all copied from other sources. If we get right down to it, what works are completely original?


Agricola, G., Hoover, H., & Hoover, L. H. (1912). Georgius Agricola De re metallica. London,: The Mining magazine.
Camerota, F. (2004). Renaissance descriptive geometry: The codification of drawing methods. In W. Lefèvre (Ed.), Picturing machines 1400-1700 (pp. 175-208). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Karina, A. (1999). Handbooks as a tool for organizational learning: a case study. Journal of Engineering and Technology Management, 15, 201-208.
Lefèvre, W. (2004). The emergence of combined orthographic projections. In W. Lefèvre (Ed.), Picturing machines 1400-1700 (pp. 209-244). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Leng, R. (2004). Social character, pictorial style, and the grammar of techncial illustrations in craftsmen's manuscripts in the late middle ages. In W. Lefèvre (Ed.), Picturing machines 1400-1700 (pp. 85-114). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Long, P. O. (2004). Picturing the machine: Francesco di Georgio and Leonardo in the 1490s. In W. Lefèvre (Ed.), Picturing machines 1400-1700 (pp. 117-142). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
McGee, D. (2004). The origins of early modern machine design. In W. Lefèvre (Ed.), Picturing machines 1400-1700 (pp. 53-84). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Pai, H. (2002). The portfolio and the diagram : architecture, discourse, and modernity in America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Reti, L. (1963). Franceso di Giorgio Martini's treatise on engineering and its plagiarists. Technology and Culture, 4(3), 287-298.
Reti, L. (1972). Leonardo and Ramelli. Technology and Culture, 13, 577-605.
Shelby, L. R. (1972). The Geometrical Knowledge of Mediaeval Master Masons. Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, 47(3), 395-421 Acronym Speculum Periodical Record.
Turnbull, D. (2000). Masons, tricksters, and cartographers : comparative studies in the sociology of scientific and indeigenous knowledge. Australia: Harwood Academic.


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