Saturday, February 19, 2005

Gardens of Architecture

In my quest to piece together some scholarship on Architectural Graphic Standards, I’ve given our inter-library loan staff some impressive challenges. There’s now a huge backlog in my name and every few days I get a magical email that summons my presence to the education library (good temporary parking) to pick up yet another dusty tome that some intrepid librarian has dug out of a long-forgotten collection. Yesterday, I received a beut.

The photocopied article in front of me is barely legible and certainly indicates the short-comings of copying technology. The source manifestation of this work—had to watch the vocabulary there—must be a remarkable thing: each page is covered with watermarks and subtle diagrammatic icons. The paper itself must be somehow coloured and textured. Unfortunately, in my barely legible photocopy the depth of presentation has been flattened and I’m left with a document without pagination, or margins and apparently suffering from a sever case of impetigo. I can only imagine the original texture of the pages or the crackle of book’s spine but given the rarity of this thing, I’m happy to have a (very insufficient) copy. In front of me sits a copy of George Barnett Johnston’s Gardens of Architecture: Reflections on the Plates of Architectural Graphic Standards originally published in the exceedingly rare 1988 book edited by Rob Miller called Implementing Architecture.

I can only imagine other researchers meeting with a similar level of frustration when looking for Johston’s work, so I am making some choice pull-quotes available. Of course, the précised text of a copied work strips out much of the reading satisfaction but I figure my efforts are better than nothing. Please note the pagination is mine and starts from the first page of my copy which happens to be Johnston’s title page.

“In its beginning Graphic Standards served as a handbook for the accommodation of technical progress within the bounds of the existing building custom; today, it serves as an instrument for the promotion of the progress of technology as the single motive of a new and unbounded standard.” (Pg. 1)

“The challenge for today’s Graphic Standards, and one must assert for contemporary architectural practice as well, is not how to put buildings together but rather to conform to a logical system by which they might be divided into parts. Evident form the pages of Graphic Standards is that the manipulation of information holds primacy over the mastery of material. The craft of building is reduced to the assembly of standards parts. While the connection of components lies within the realm of the systematic, the integration of systems into a larger structure is either absent or opaque.” (pp. 4-5)

“Each division of Graphic Standards is a self-contained subject, complete with its own rational determinants of optimal testing. Unlike encyclopedic order, the plates of Graphic Standards are fragmented but not cross-referenced, leaving the knowledge of architecture in a state of disassembly. The movement from building custom to constructional standard, first codified in the early editions of Graphic Standards, has here become the assertion of an economic-functional-technological determinism engendered through graphic convention. The individual plates are graphic texts without context: flat, disembodied, and drawn with an eery sense of detachment which neither instructs nor inspires.” (pg. 5)

[There’s a lot that I could take Johnston to task for here… but he’s given me some rhetorical scope!]

“From the first through fifth editions, Architectural Graphic Standards is a handbook of practice in the service of the draftsman; graphic standards are treated as tools of circumstantial accommodation.” (pg. 6)

“Because of the standardization of building components, the intuitive adjustments made by the mason or carpenter in the field were gradually being brought under the control of the draftsmen. In the pages of Graphic Standards, therefore, custom and practice were being systematically redefined as a controlling standard from which circumstantial deviation in the field was becoming less tolerable.” (pg. 6)

“Because Graphic Standards was, metaphorically, the building unfolded, anyone familiar with construction knew where to open the book. The graphic plates, which were hand-drawn and hand-lettered, still convey the warmth of their humanity which is their main clue to an architecture of material reality.” (pg. 6)

[In a riff on something seemingly unrelated to AGS, Johnston provides a passage that deserves a wider audience. I feel like I should put it in italics to open a chapter or something…}

“The Anthropometric Man is also ergonometric, the one measures for optimum work. Every joint is emphasized and centers of gravity localized, while lines of force connect points of stress to trace the limbs in motion and rest. Institutions exist to correct the maladjustments which are inevitable according to the statistical sages with actuarial tables. The courtroom provides social surgery while the hospital administers an anesthetic justice. If just a quick-fix is all you need, may I recommend the Automatic Tithe Machine, or perhaps Drive-Thru Absolution?” (pg. 9)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Moving to method

I’ve been battling with how to operationalize the various ideas that are laid out here and in my notebooks. How do I formulate a methodology and a method? My instinct is to use a methodology such as SCOT, articulated with an eye towards discourse analysis of visual materials as described by Gillian Rose. Of course, this whole road is filled with hazards. After spending an inordinate amount of time reading the various chronicles of disasters associated with these techniques, it’s time to start writing.

To start, I should probably articulate the difference between method and methodology—but I won’t. I’m convinced that I’ve already done it and where possible, I’ll crib from myself (see Potter, 1996; Wilson, 2002). In short, methodology: SCOT; method of analysis: Rose’s discourse analysis I.

The second thing to address is one of the ongoing threads of discontent with SCOT. To sum up a broad base of literature, one of SCOT’s goals is to overcome the technological determinism inherent is other approaches to the history of technology; however, in so doing SCOT has been criticize for being so value neutral as be banal. Several commentators note that other approaches such as process theory, or Marxist inspired strategies uncover the more important issues of social relations. In each of these arguments there are varying conceptions of ontology and significance. A hardcore SCOT researcher may claim that Marxist approaches reify an artificial construct such “capital” or “labour” that may have been well outside of the ken of the individuals who were actually working with the technology. On the other hand, other researchers may claim that SCOT uses a technique that artificially carves up categories of receptive communities while completely ignoring the underlying social constructs. To assess these types of criticisms, I want to introduce some very old science.

Francis Bacon is often credited with establishing the modern tenets of science. Empiricists discuss Baconian method the importance of learning from the world by gleaning evidence and direct observation; however, in his discussion of the Science Wars, Stephen Jay Gould claims that Bacon may have as much in common with social constructionists and he does with the empiricists. Of particular importance to Gould is Bacon’s discussion of “idols” or impediments, which he published in his opus Novum Organum. Bacon’s idols seem to be as relevant to us today as they were to him in 1620.

There are four idols. Idols of the theatre refers to the persistent use of old theories and philosophies to describe new phenomenon. Idols of the marketplace refer to false modes of reasoning, or to a complete lack of concepts or words to support new investigations. Idols of the cave are those individual peculiarities that blind us to certain things and predispose us to others. Finally, the idols of the tribe are those limitations imposed on us by the structure of the human mind.


Introduction of SCOT

Criticisms of SCOT

Similarity to ANT]


Potter, W. J. (1996). An analysis of thinking and research about qualitative methods. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Wilson, T. D. (2002). Alfred Schutz, phenomenology and research methodology for information behaviour research. The New Review of Information Behaviour Research, 3, 71-81.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Novum documentum : materiality and situatedness

I’ve been nibbling around the edges of the novum documentum, that new cannon of work emerging from the neo-documentalists. Inspired by Otlet and Briet, a number of researchers have returned to the document as the primary object of study in LIS. Since I’ve hitched my research to this work, I should probably develop some mastery of it. My intention is to review some of the recent work of Frohmann, my Virgil as I launch myself into self-imposed documentalist exile. But first, I want to make a stop at the Document Academy ( and a recent paper.

This past year Bringay, Barry, and Charlet presented a paper called Annotations: A new type of document in the Electronic Health Record (2004). While their paper certainly describes a new type of document—the annotation—it is a bit weak on rigor. I wish that they had cited more sociological monographs and fewer conference proceedings. Their background research should be expanded in two particular directions. First, I found their analysis very light in terms of the function of annotations. The authors spill considerably ink describing annotations and informing the reader of the ways that annotations can be manipulated yet they fail to describe exactly why these things exist or what they do. Some consideration of Jackson’s (2001) work on marginalia could expand their discussion considerably (see Note 1). The second lack stems from their situational agnosticism. Again, the authors describe what they can do with the annotations but give us little background of where these particular documents live. This oversight is tragic since this particular environment has been thoroughly addressed by the workplace studies researchers Paul Huff and Christian Heath in proceedings, journal articles, and monographs (Heath, Knoblauch, & Luff, 2000; Heath & Luff, 2000; Luff & Heath, 1998; Luff, Hindmarsh, & Heath, 2000).

The work of Bringay, Barry, and Charlet has left me feeling under-whelmed; however, it has also provided me with some very valuable negative knowledge; I know what any approach to documentation should include: attention to what documents actually do, and some detail related to the environment within which the documents are situated.

In his most recent writing, Frohmann specifically addresses these concerns (Frohmann, 2004a, 2004b). By collapsing the concept of “information” in a Wittgensteinian manner, he returns to the primacy of the document and documentary practices. In a recent article in Library Trends Frohmann provides a list of the crucial features of documents: “their materiality, their institutional sites; the ways in which they are socially disciplined; and their historical contingency.” (pg. 387) In a recent paper presented at DOCAM 2004, he amends this list and presents a new focus for the novum documentum: “the materiality of documents and writing, and the non-authorial nature of many of these document types, and an analytical emphasis on what documents do, rather than what they signify, express, or represent.” (pg. 1) Frohmann expresses the need to address those features that were so overtly missing from the work of Bringay, Barry, and Charlet. I intend to address explicate two of these features: materiality, and situatedness.


Documents are material, they are situated in practice, and they do something. These concepts are most evident in the writings of the aforementioned workplace researchers like Luff and Heath who have explored documents such as the tapes used by air traffic controllers, health records used by doctors, and the forms and drawings used by the personnel on a construction site (also see Plowman, Rogers, & Ramage, 1995). Another approach is activity theory, whose strongest current proponent is probably Engeström. Based on Marxist philosophy and developed in the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s, activity theory focuses on the role mediating objects within subject/object relationships. The object is inherently material. A third body of literature that seems to resonate with the concept of materiality explores the role of documents within organizations. Preda (2002), for example, notes that particular documents such as the minutes from meetings become negotiated objects within a certain context. Indeed, the final version of the minutes may bear little resemblance to what actually was discussed at the meeting. The document therefore becomes a crucial input into the company’s perception of reality. In this case, it could be argued that the materiality of the document is not as important as the information described by the markings on the document, but Mambrey and Robinson (1997) provide another perspective. They followed a speech written for a bureaucrat through a government organization, from initial request to ultimate rejection—in a manner that resonates with current theories of physical anthropology such as Chaîne Opératoire (Dobres, 2000). They note that the material status of many of the documents within the organization is highly variable and often questioned. For example, an undocumented phone call is neither information nor document:

“This artefact is a 'nonexisting nothing': it is simply not part of the work-flow. A civil servant may work with the information but the document does not exist.” (pg. 121)

From these three types of studies it seems that the materiality of documents is somehow bound-up with ontological status. And ontological status is necessarily a function of the socio-historical context of the institution within which the document is situated. Returning to my preferred medium of study—visual representations—there is a great deal of work on how the ontological status of images, particularly scientific images, is established. From this work it appears that there are actually two approaches to ontological status: internal and external. Abstract renderings may be very important and very real for scientists or technicians who are well versed in their use (Knorrcetina & Amann, 1990). To appeal to a wider audience outside of their own discipline, however, these same individuals may adopt an empirical approach and attempt to create photo-realistic images that represent phenomena in the way that they may appear to the casual observer. This trend is certainly evident in architectural and technical drawings. While both engineers and architects may prefer combined projected views—indeed, the Beaux-Arts training of architects used only combined views (Pai, 2002)—architects use full perspective renderings for clients, while the technical illustration of manuals is generally executed in isometric or oblique perspective. But perhaps I’m beginning to conflate “information” with “document”.

Frohmann (2004) demonstrates a strict reading of the materiality of documents in his exploration of posies and embroidered clothes. I have a few concerns with this approach largely due to the underlying nature of the objects. Any object—document or otherwise—presents a number of different affordances to a potential user; for example, a framing hammer can be used for its intended purpose of driving nails but it’s equally useful for propping a door open. Similarly, a document may adopt different uses. The Bible for example, can be used as a reader, or it can insight the masses to riot, or it can be used to prevent atheists from committing perjury in the court of law. A more interesting example of the various affordances of documents comes from antiquity. Petroski (1990) describes the exploits of a young student who used his pugilare—wood framed wax codex—to bash in the skull of his instructor. While the materiality of the document certainly afforded this action, this interpretation may be outside of the constraints of materiality that we attempting to apply.

While I certainly haven’t come to any grand conclusions regarding the materiality of documents, I can see the value of the concept. It clearly demonstrates the limitation of two quite popular theories for information use. Star and Greisemer (Star & Griesemer, 1999 [1989]) articulate the concept of the boundary object, a something used in the process of interessement within heterogeneous networks. They base their discussion in the interaction of naturalists and other individuals to collect specimens for a museum. When they describe actual documents e.g., cards annotated to reflect the location where a specimen was found, their argument is very strong. However, when they drift to other types of boundary objects such as those shared conceptual categories such as borders and boundaries, I feel their argument becomes considerably weaker. After all, those boundaries aren’t just cognitive structures but have become reified in some sort of documentary form such as a map or a treaty. A similar shortcoming is evident in the work of Yates and Orlikowski (1992) and their conceptualization of the genre. Essentially, they extend the boundary object and its affordances into the organization and describe its role in structuration (Giddens, 1984). Although basing their argument in material documents such as memos and annual reports, they then also throw in non-material genres such as the meeting. This combination of material and non-material seems to also conflate the practical and discursive consciousness that underlies structuration.

So where does this leave me? I’m still striving to operationalize materiality in some way for my own stated purpose of studying handbooks and technical representations. I could easily compile a narrative history but I would prefer to formulate a dialectic one. But what dialectic exists within this analysis? Let’s start with the test case of the Theatrum Machinarum. I can start with three premises based on the above ramblings: 1. The document was a crucial element in actual practice (although I suspect that the practice may not be the technical one we imagine!); 2. The ontological status of the documents was debated on different levels both within and without the primary interpretive community; and 3. The documents were put to radically different uses than the authors imagined but perhaps not as dramatic as homicide.


[to come… Downhill parking: if situated in practice, does the document have a performative

Sunday, February 13, 2005


Call me a radical but I’ve changed my preferred writing venue. The shooting pains in my wrists called for a change in ergonomics and a move away from my desk. So I’ve set myself up in the living room on the (rather battered) red La-Z-Boy with my (rather battered) laptop. The elbow support seems quite adequate and by rocking back in the chair my neck is nicely supported. Of course, this position is an invitation for the cat to come and sleep on my lap… we’ll have to work this out.

This new office setup has been greatly facilitated by new technology: I’ve gone wireless. Taking advantage of some Boxing Day sales (in the middle of February) I was able to pick up the required bits and pieces for about $40. I can now use my laptop anywhere in the house. Of course, my laptop doesn’t actually have a functioning battery so “anywhere” carries the caveat that it must occur within five feet of a power outlet. Still, the new setup is kind of nice and allows me to make great scholarly use of a few old trusted tools—namely my laptop and the aforementioned red chair.

I picked up the laptop three years ago as stop-gap measure. I was called up for an engineering venture in deepest darkest Missouri and I needed some tech. Not having the scratch for a new machine, I picked up an old used beater. If destroyed, I would feel no guilt. It’s still with me and currently sports quite an interesting glowing appendage, which informs me that I’m on “Wi-Fi”. I could refer to the adapter as a tail; however, the Latin word for tail—penis—makes the analogy a little more complete.

The red chair has a pedigree. It comes from Princeton University. Both my wife and my brother-in-law attended that esteemed institution. When my brother-in-law left he took a certain red La-Z-Boy that had spent several generations coddling the bums of dozing undergraduates. After a sojourn in Lethbridge Alberta, my wife and I removed it to Winnipeg where we were spending the year [And we had a great time. Never let it be said that Winnipeg isn’t a great place to live. We would have stayed, but other opportunities called… as they always seem to do when you live in Winnipeg!] Finally, big red ended up in my living room where it currently coddles my bum, and lets me type away on my newly retrofitted laptop [which has moved up to my knees to make room for a very bossy cat].

I think this Wi-Fi thing is going to work out. But it’s time to get on to what I really intended to write about: materiality, situatedness, and SCOT.