Paper Machines

From History and Foundations of Information Science

Paper Machines

About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929

By Markus Krajewski

Translated by Peter Krapp

Why the card catalog—a “paper machine” with rearrangeable elements—can be regarded as a precursor of the computer.





Why the card catalog—a “paper machine” with rearrangeable elements—can be regarded as a precursor of the computer.

Today on almost every desk in every office sits a computer. Eighty years ago, desktops were equipped with a nonelectronic data processing machine: a card file. In Paper Machines, Markus Krajewski traces the evolution of this proto-computer of rearrangeable parts (file cards) that became ubiquitous in offices between the world wars.

The story begins with Konrad Gessner, a sixteenth-century Swiss polymath who described a new method of processing data: to cut up a sheet of handwritten notes into slips of paper, with one fact or topic per slip, and arrange as desired. In the late eighteenth century, the card catalog became the librarian's answer to the threat of information overload. Then, at the turn of the twentieth century, business adopted the technology of the card catalog as a bookkeeping tool. Krajewski explores this conceptual development and casts the card file as a “universal paper machine” that accomplishes the basic operations of Turing's universal discrete machine: storing, processing, and transferring data. In telling his story, Krajewski takes the reader on a number of illuminating detours, telling us, for example, that the card catalog and the numbered street address emerged at the same time in the same city (Vienna), and that Harvard University's home-grown cataloging system grew out of a librarian's laziness; and that Melvil Dewey (originator of the Dewey Decimal System) helped bring about the technology transfer of card files to business.


$40.00 X ISBN: 9780262015899 224 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 24 figures, 1 table


Peter Krapp.


  • Markus Krajewski has done the history of cataloguing and the history of information management a considerable service: I recommend it highly.

    Professor Tom Wilson

    Editor-in-Chief, Information Research


  • Krajewski draws on recent German media theory and on a rich array of European and American sources in this thought-provoking account of the index card as a tool of information management. In investigating the road from the slips of paper of the 16th century to the data processing of the 20th, Krajewski highlights its twists and turns—failures and unintended consequences, reinventions, and surprising transfers.

    Ann M. Blair

    Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Harvard University, and author of Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age

  • This is a fascinating, original, continuously surprising, and meticulously researched study of the long history of the emergence of card systems for organizing not only libraries but business activities in Europe and the United States. It is particularly important for English language readers due to its European perspective and the extraordinary range of German and other resources on which it draws.

    W. Boyd Rayward

    Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign