Thursday, August 31, 2006


Just some information that is in danger of dissappearing unless I make a record somewhere.

The whole genre of business literature really emerged in the mid-1600s (Cole). Cole's discussion of the rise of trade literature may be informative for further exporation of the history of publications such as Sweets.

Biersack edited an entire volume of articles about the shift in cultural history. While the volume as a whole is informative, Johns does a better job of articulating the ramifications for the history of the book.

Chartier has some interesting comments on Darnton, particularly with respect to his process of exploring genres and works: "Darnton follows the model of 'thick description' to the letter. The massacre of Parisian cats is like the cockfight in Bali: it is a point of entry that gives us access to the comprehension of a culture in its entirety." (p. 98) But, a record is only one particular reading of an event. I'm interested to further explore some of Chartier's notions of discourse as it pertains to manuals and handbooks.

Finally, Moss provides a long history of commonplaces, a tradition that finally died out in the seventeenth century. Commonplaces were memory devices that evolved into various forms and many have had an influence on library and collections management theory.


Biersack. The new cultural history.
Chartier. Cultural history.
Cole. The historical development of economic and business literature.
Moss. Printed commonplace books.
Function Fucks with Form

Amazon directed my attention to fascinating little work. The 21st volume of the Pamphlet Architecture series of Princeton Architectural Press is called Situation Normal. A keyword search revealed that it quoted both de Certeau and Architectural Graphic Standards.

The authors of the work--Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki, and David J. Lewis--riff on the idea of snafu. They discuss the origins of the term in WWII. It refers to a vast array of often conflicting regulation. If each regulation is followed, the system ultimately grinds to a halt. Hence the expression: sitation normal, all fucked up.

The idea of snafu speaks to bureaucracy and organizational rigidity. Individuals resist these "strategies" through "tactics." Referring to de Certeau, the authors note that "strategies demand locations of power, require competition, define legitimate modes of research, and establish boundaries of practice... Tactics, on the other hand, lack a specific location, survive through improvisation, and use the advantages of the weak against the strong." (p. 4-5)

Strategies are inherently built into the structures that shape professional practice and convention. They are also built into common reference works: "In the last century, an entire publishing industry had developed around the conventions of architecture, serving the needs of the architectural profession with titles such as Architectural Graphic Standards and Time Saver Standards." (p. 7) The authors note that these conventions "often insure that tenuous social construction, such as the unstable boundary between public and private, remain unexamined." (p. 7)

In their analysis, Lewis, Tsurumaki, and Lewis describe the common assumptions of architectural investigation: form and function. Conventions mandate that form must follow function. The logic of both form and function, however, are predetermined in the discourse of the pratice. They pose a more interesting question: what happens if "form follows function" is replaced with "function fucks with form?"

Good question.


Lewis, Paul, Marc Tsurumaki and David Lewis (1998). Situation Normal: Pamphlet Architecture, no. 21. Princeton Architectural Press : New York.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Benjamin Franklin and the Theatrum Machinarum

It seems that even Franklin was interested in Leupold's work. Through the wonders of Google Books I came across an interesting little tidbit. In a draft of a letter to an unnamed friend dated March 17th 1775, Franklin wrote:

"Being about to embark for America, this line is just to take leave, wishing you every kind of felicity, and to request, that if you have not yet purchased for me the Theatrum Machinarum, you will now omit doing it, as I have the offer of a set here. But, if you have purchased it, your draft on me will be duly paid in my absence by Mrs. Stevenson, in whose hands I leave my affairs till my return, which I propose, God willing, in October." (notes, pg. 149)

Given the reference to a "set" I assume that Franklin was in search of Leupold's work.


Franklin, Benjamin and Jared Sparks (1840). The works of Benjamin Franklin: Containing several political and historical tracts not included in any former edition, and many letters official and private not hitherto published; with notes and a life of the author. Hilliard, Gray, and Company : Boston.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Handbooks of German Commerce

Naming conventions seem to be popular in phases. The theatrum, for example, came into being early in the sixteenth century and died out early in the eighteenth. Handbooks seem to have done something similar. According to the OED, there are etymological sources for “handbook” in English. In the eleventh century, there were “hanboks,” derived from old English. The modern use of the term, however, comes from the German “handbuch” and dates to the rapid German expansion in technical education.

These early German handbooks are of some interest to me and a quick search revealed yet another academic paper devoted to certain aspects of handbooks. Daniel Rabuzzi wrote about business handbooks in the eighteenth century and how they reflect the particular mentalities of that era's business leaders. He notes that these metntalities are “reflected” and “projected” in the handbooks, but not “embodied, confirmed or exclusively voiced.” Instead, handbooks were both a product of a particular environment and served the needs of that environment.

But what exactly was the need?

The books were collection of various bits of information related to the different aspects of business. They contained information on tariffs, exchange rates, tides, etc. They also contained information concerning moral considerations for merchants and guidance on how the ideal pubic deportment of engineers.

These handbooks served many purposes. One purpose may have been for self identification. The handbooks contained dated and spurious information, but "it did not matter because the manuals were also vehicles of identity. A merchant's main sources of market information would always be conversations at the coffee-house or bourse and letters (and, by the late eighteenth century, newspapers), whereas knowledge of techniques would always require hands-on training. The merchant's willingness to buy handbooks that included material of little practical value was driven by other desires, much as modern needs of style and pretension fuel the market for coffee-table books" (p. 174-5)

The authors of these works were often unknowns. Indeed, many works were published under the name of “Sperander.” Rabuzzi maintains that Sperander may have been used as a “franchise” name in the manner of modern travel guides or auto repair manuals (e.g., Haynes or Chilton). He is unforgiving in his description of these characters:

"...many merchant manual authors of the early eighteenth century seem also to have been petty and liminal figures, shuttling, in this case between the worlds of letters and commerce. This made them important but often overlooked articulators, or at least publicists, of the early capitalist mentality. By the mid- and late-eighteenth century the handbooks were becoming part of the pedagogical institutionalization of business knowledge, turning into classroom textbooks written by professors and replete with 'systems' and 'theories.' Already by that time obscurity had descended upon the earlier handbook authors, many of whose names still graced edition almost completely rewritten after their deaths." (p. 171)

In many ways, Rabuzzi hits on many of the same issues that plagued the creator of the theatrum machinarum. They constantly tried to create works of great utility but were constantly plagiarized as a result (although this “plagiarism” may have been more in the manner of the much copied “commonplaces” rather than in line with our modern notion of the term).

In closing, Rabuzzi pulls an interesting quote from Chartier: “Numerous text overtly aim to negate their own status as discourse in order to produce, at a practical level, behaviour or practices held to be legitimate or useful.” (from “Texts, Printing, Reading” pg. 170)

I have yet to evaluate the accuracy of this quote but it certainly resonates with my own thoughts on the problems of studying technical handbooks.


Rabuzzi, Daniel A. (1995-1996). Eighteenth-century commercial mentalities as reflected and projected in business handbooks. Eighteenth-Century Studies 29.2: 169-189.