Monday, July 04, 2005

New Directions

Once again I find myself jammed up and unable to write. There are any number of ideas flowing through my brain; I just have to get them down on the page. At the moment, they seem to resist description. Regardless, I have to write. There are a few things that need to be recorded:

  1. What the AGS is
  2. Why it’s tough to describe
  3. Starting with the cycle of production
  4. Moving to limitations of historiography

That’s a good start. On to the first topic.

My project concerns a single document: Architectural Graphic Standards (AGS). I received a copy of this work when I graduated from Queen’s University with a degree in Civil Engineering. My father, a mechanical engineer, used AGS regularly as a guide in his own work and felt that it could provide me with similar benefits. His inscription reads:

“Congratulations George on attaining this major plateau in your life. I hope this work will keep you climbing. Best wishes and much success in your future. Love, Dad. May 25, 1996.”

AGS was a companion throughout my career as an engineer and it accompanies me as I climb to a new level of academic scholarship. It’s a remarkable book. My copy weighs in at 918 folio pages, each packed with a remarkable amount of information. It has become my primary reference for information on the built world. Given its popularity among architects and engineers, it fulfills a similar function for any number of other professionals.

While my copy of AGS spent the last years yielding answers about such esotera as roof flashing details and seismic construction codes, it also introduced me to a very large question: Where did this thing come from? My preliminary analysis yielded very little information:

  1. It was given to me by my father
  2. My father acquired the book from a catalogue of titles
  3. The catalogue was issued by the publisher John Wiley and Sons
  4. John Wiley and Sons has published AGS since 1932
  5. The first editors of AGS were Ramsey and Sleeper
  6. Since the sixth edition, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has taken over editorial responsibility

At this point, the trail grew very cold. It seemed that AGS erased the footprints of its own creation. As an artefact, AGS appears to have been released on the world fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Given the distinctive technological trajectory of other artefacts, it seems unlikely that AGS emerged sui generis.

The problem lies in attempting to study the work. Given the lack of historical or critical research, every promising avenue of research seems to collapse. I’ve discovered that AGS represents a new locus of research. In the past, when I scratched at the surface of a particular research problem a new layer emerged. This new layer either afforded either an answer or at the very least an avenue of study. With AGS, I’m left with nothing. Like a sandcastle, it appears epistemologically robust and detailed yet collapses with rough handling.

This epistemological friability isn’t limited to AGS. It seems that most handbooks and manuals are subject to a very similar background. Despite the predominance of these works in the practices of scientists and engineers, they remain understudied in broader LIS discourse. For example, in their textbook on reference sources Bopp and Smith (2001) provide only three terse lines on handbooks and their brethren:

“Almanacs, yearbooks, and handbooks provide concise factual information about current and historical events; organizations, people, places, and things; and statistical trends. The information available in these tools is almost always available in other sources.” (Pg. 357)

Surely there must be more to AGS—the “bible of architecture”—than “concise factual information about… things.” This description is sufficiently self evident as to be ridiculous. AGS is such an inherent part of architectural practice that desk copies are often battered and bound together with cello-tape. Bopp and Smith’s trite description hardly captures the relevance of the work.

The question facing me is how to analyze such a common research subject. A sociological approach will be stymied by the very familiarity of the work. To engineers and architects AGS is sufficiently familiar to be completely banal. It even defies description by people who aren’t technical professionals. The layout seems familiar and the rhetorical devices are largely intelligible to the technical laity. Tables, isometric illustrations, and short textual descriptions are all familiar conventions. A historical approach will likely fail for very similar reasons. Since AGS was created as a common tool of professional practice there is no extensive archival trail. One approach is to study the inherent differences among the various editions. The format of AGS has changed considerably from the first edition of 1932 to the current edition. Such an analysis will not, however, be informed by any sort of robust theoretical framework of technical handbooks. The framework just doesn’t exist.

My only option is to create the necessary framework. To explore AGS, and technical handbooks in general, I need to make it strange; I need to evoke it as a “thick thing” that yields a narrative and commentary. Unfortunately, AGS is still so firmly entrenched is current professional discourse that appears very thin indeed. My own background as a Civil Engineer further serves to shave down AGS until it appears as merely a source of information rather than an epistemic object located with a socio-technical ensemble of professional practice.

Adrian Johns faced a very similar problem when creating his history of scientific writing. He notes that there are two possible ways of creating thick description. One is to translate the object of study geographically. In my case, for example, I could study the technical handbooks of different cultures or countries. Unfortunately, modern technology and science is a totalizing and worldwide discourse. With very few exceptions[1], there is very little difference between the practices of technical representation in different parts of the world. Therefore, it is useless to study handbooks from different geographic locales. A more fruitful approach—and the approach adopted by Johns—is to temporally translate the focus of study. Instead of studying AGS, I can begin my quest with the study of its forebears, the machine books of the Renaissance.

My intention then, is not to first study AGS directly but rather to study related documents that are exceptionally strange. The key to understanding AGS lies in an investigation of technical handbooks published during the Renaissance. By turning to these earlier documents I have not (to paraphrase Geertz) changed the focus of my research. Rather, I have changed the locus in order to gain an appreciation of my object of study. Since I lack a convenient theoretical model for technical handbooks, I must develop one. I must train my own eye and my own sensibilities in order to make AGS sufficiently thick. Like a traveller who only sees the corruption and beauty of his own country after having travelled around the earth, I will turn my scholastic eye to the largely untapped territory of the theatrum machinarum.

<>Of course, having made my decision to explore these strange and wild works doesn’t necessarily mean I can just storm off in a bibliographic frenzy. Even Dante needed Virgil as a guide so he could bring back his tale of the Inferno. For this particular journey Robert Darnton will be my guide.


  1. Geertz and Adler on “thick things”
  2. Darnton and his cycle:
    1. Author
    2. Engraver
    3. Printer
    4. Publisher
    5. Transport
    6. Bookseller
    7. Reader/User
  3. Problems with historiography
[1] But there are differences. As noted by xxx and xxx different drawing conventions are used on the Continent from those of Britain.


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