Tag Archives: Constance Crompton

Notes on the Economics of Library Economy



Stamps. From Library Bureau. Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Bureau …: A Handbook of Library and Office … Library Bureau, 1890. Internet Archive. Web. 13 Dec. 2016. Page 49

by Constance Crompton

While in Middlemarch, published serially in 1871 and 1872, dear Dorothea suffered great “annoyance at being twitted with her ignorance of political economy, that never-explained science which was thrust as an extinguisher over all her lights” (Eliot 42) there were many other economies being developed in the 1870s which would rely on women as employees and proselytizers. I will leave domestic economy to the side for the nonce — it’s the economy of knowledge storage devices and spelling reform that has my interest.

I have completely fallen for the late-century American passion for efficiency experts, so once again will, at the risk of taxing Victorian Studies readers, offer up a post that features more American cousins rather than British ones. I had touched earlier in this blog on the invention of the vertical file. I’d like to pick up where I left off with a few remarks about the company the marketed the vertical file, the Library Bureau and the Bureau’s founder, that great promoter of “library economy,” Melvil Dewey (Classification 5). I’ve been dipping of late into Dewey’s “Librarianship as a Profession for College-Bred Women”, published by the Library Bureau, while Dewey was Columbia’s chief librarian. Continue reading

Floating Academy: A Pressing Problem and a Vertical Solution

By Constance Crompton

Mr Squercum’s office. Image courtesy of The Victorian Web

Mr Squercum’s office. Image
courtesy of The Victorian Web

One of Lionel Grimston Fawkes’ engravings for Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel, The Way We Live Now, features Mr. Squercum, a lawyer, lolling in his office. His desktop is a mess of paper, with more sheets affixed with push pins to the office walls, and still others spilling out of pigeonholes. It doesn’t look as though any of the papers on his desk are bound save, perhaps, those in either books or folders of some sort resting atop the pigeonholes. Trollope had, of course, been writing about office life for years, chiefly in sympathy with the much put-upon clerks, those responsible for “the management of little details, the answering of big men’s letters, the quieting of all difficulties” (The Three Clerks 36). Even the most odious office workers, such as Mr. Kissing in The Small House in Allington (1864), get Trollopian compassion (I say this tongue firmly in cheek) for the weight of their work: Kissing’s “hair was always brushed straight up, his eyes were always very wide open, and he usually carried a big letter-book with him, keeping in it a certain place with his finger. This book was almost too much for his strength, and he would flop it down, now on this man’s desk and now on that man’s, and in a long career of such floppings had made himself to be very much hated” (545 emphasis added).

Letter Press. Image courtesy of the Canada Science and Technology Museum

Letter Press. Image courtesy of the Canada
Science and Technology Museum

I am not so interested here in office rivalries or the little interpersonal difficulties that needed quieting, but in solutions to the difficulties created by the unmanageable amounts of paper in late-Victorian offices. Kissing makes enemies of the other clerks by wielding a heavy letter book and the none-too-amiable Mr Squercum is certainly not in control of his office papers. According to JoAnne Yates, at the end of the 19th century and through the start of the 20th, letter books were increasingly impractical. Letter books, sometimes called press books, contained between 300 and 1000 sheets of tissue paper designed to fit into a letter copying press. Each outgoing letter was written using special copying ink so that the letter’s contents could be transferred to the tissue paper in the press book before the letter was sent out, leaving the sender with a copy of outgoing correspondence (an improvement, to be sure, on the older copy book which was the responsibility of a copy clerk who entered a copy of outgoing correspondence by hand). Press books were perfectly practical for small single-office businesses that, before the correspondence boom made possible by cheap rail and up to 12 mail deliveries daily, only needed to record a trickle of external correspondence; however, as companies grew, required inter-branch communication, and developed internal communications via what would later be called memoranda, letter books, with their chronological content became impractical. Anyone who wanted to look up a particular outgoing letter would have to know almost precisely when it had been sent. Furthermore, letter books did not help correlate outgoing letters to the corresponding responses.

Pigeonholes and pasteboard boxes for storing loose-leaf letters offered a partial solution. Loose-leaf filing let office workers control the order and sorting of correspondence, arranged not chronologically, but, perhaps, by topic or by correspondent, eliminating or reducing the need for indices (the key to all press books!); however, as Fawkes’ illustration suggests, it was difficult to organize loose-leaf files. The nineteenth-century solution, one which we still use today and which, through the power of metaphor, shapes how we interact with computers, was the vertical file. As Martin Campbell-Kelly points out, without a way to organize loose-leaf paper, 20th century businesses would not have been able to build up the facts, knowledge, and managerial expertise created by their very own records (25).

Melvil Dewey’s library furniture supply company, The Library Bureau (whose famous decimal system we know and love) first exhibited vertical files at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Vertical files required only 10% of the space taken up by pasteboard boxes, which stored papers flat rather than on their edges. The Library Bureau’s vertical files won a gold medal at the World’s Fair, not just because they saved space, but because they also allowed for the topical arrangement of contents, by subject, by place, or by correspondent. Since they allowed companies to more readily “build up a body of knowledge on some issue, whether from internal or external sources, and … [gave] manager[s] rapid access to that body of knowledge” it would be well worth the study to see how odious managers, like Kissing, deprived of their letter books, used this new power and new office equipment to make nuisances of themselves (Yates 20).

For more see,
Campbell-Kelly, Martin et al. Computer: A History of the Information Machine. 3rd ed. New York: Westview Press, 2013.
Library Bureau. Classified Illustrated Catalog of the Library Department of Library Bureau. N.p., 1890. Print.
Trollope, Anthony. The Small House at Allington. London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1865.
Trollope, Anthony. The Three Clerks. London: Richard Bentley, 1858.
Trollope, Anthony. The Way We Live Now. London: Chapman and Hall, 1875.
Yates, JoAnne. “From Press Book and Pigeonhole to Vertical Filing: Revolution in Storage and Access Systems for Correspondence.” Journal of Business Communication 19.3 (1982): 5–26.

I can’t resist a sidebar: before writing this post, I hadn’t visited the Canada Science and Technology Museum website for years. If you, like me, haven’t seen their collection’s beautiful online documentation (be still my archivalphilic heart!) I recommend heading over to their site.

Floating Academy: Close Reading Christmas Comedy

By Constance Crompton

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball by John Leech. Image courtesy of Philip V. Allingham and the Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/carol/1.html

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball by John Leech.
Image courtesy of Philip V.
Allingham and the Victorian Web

One of my Digital Humanities classes is working on a digital archive of A Christmas Carol. In addition to encoding and annotating each stave, they will be creating introductions to the text, to John Leech’s illustrations, and to a few key early 20th-century adaptations (from the first film version (1901), to Edison’s adaptation (1910), and Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore’s radio play (1939) to a TV version narrated by Vincent Price (1949). I will spare you the rationale for these particular choices (“why no Victorian theatre adaptations?” you ask, to which I say “is there no copyright? Are there no license fees?”) and will zip right along).

I have given many Victorian Studies lectures in Digital Humanities classes. I am a Victorianist by training and passion, and while Digital Humanities classes tend to focus on digital methods and building as a methodology, they rely on a deeply humanist engagement with the material and cultural past. In short, the humanities part of Digital Humanities mandates that DH projects, while D, must be about and through H. This time ‘round, I decided to give the students a contextual lecture about class, the workhouse, and early Victorian childhood, with a little excursus on early-Victorian Christmas traditions (or lack of them—Cratchit and his daughter Martha only get to pick their employers’ pockets, as Scrooge put it, on the 25th of December and not on the day before or after, as they might have 100 years on). Not all my students have a background in Victorian literature and culture, or even in English, but the child Dickens, Tiny Tim, and indeed, even junior Scrooge, make for very sympathetic lecture material, so all went well.

I hadn’t expected that the class wouldn’t find the novel funny. Which they didn’t. Not a whit (or wit, if you will pardon me the pun). This afforded me the perfect opportunity to continue our discussion about close reading and distant reading. Distant reading is the practice of algorithmically discerning patterns in a single text or in a corpus. The class had done some distant reading using the Voyant tool set for visualizations, but in the context of an undergraduate classroom it turns out that humour requires real close reading.

It is easy to skip over what Scrooge leaves unsaid in his dismissal of his nephew:

“‘Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.’
Scrooge said that he would see him—-yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first” (10).

Furthermore, the contemporary meaning of intercourse can obscure just why we should be tickled by the novella’s concluding lines:

“[Scrooge] had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards” (166).

Even though I was glad to have the opportunity to talk about close reading, I was puzzled by the students—as a rule engaged and conscientious readers—missing the jokes. What’s not to love in

“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail” (1)?

I think I have found a culprit, or rather culprits. None of the other adaptations that the students had been watching and hearing were humorous. The adaptations from the second half of the 20th century, which we weren’t addressing in class, with Alastair Sim’s bulging eyeballs and Miss Piggy’s karate chops are pleasingly zany (say what you like about the Muppet Christmas Carol’s conflation of the narrator with Charles Dickens, Gonzo-as-Dickens’ delivery of the all-caps closing vociferation that “Tiny Tim did NOT die” is delightful). The Edison film, however, doesn’t make one smile, and Lionel Barrymore with his flat east coast accent breaking through his attempt to sound British (backed, best of all, by earnest American carolers), is suitably heartwarming but is far too staid to be funny. While the Price version is campy it cuts out Scrooge’s Spirit-related abstemiousness. I can tell that distant reading won’t help me here: why do Dickens’ jokes end up on the cutting room floor in the adaptations of the first half of the 20th century?

Originally published on the Floating Academy blog November 10, 2014

Floating Academy: Editorial Traces: The Yellow Nineties Online

By Constance Crompton

Volume 5 of The Yellow Book by Patten Wilson. Courtesy of The Yellow Nineties Online

Volume 5 of The Yellow Book by Patten
Wilson. Courtesy of The Yellow Nineties Online

Years ago (yes, years!) Jennifer Esmail, the founding editor of The Floating Academy, asked if I’d like to write up a brief intro to The Yellow Nineties Online, a site dedicated to a fin-de-siècle periodicals, the project on which I cut my digital and project-management teeth. My pearly whites have been in for quite a while now and so it is with a smile of pleasure that I write about the project.

The Yellow Nineties’ editors, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra and Dennis Denisoff, are among the Victorianists who have embraced the potential of both digital texts and online resources. They belong to a fine tradition: digital editing expanded through the 1980s as the result of what Matthew Kirschenbaum calls “the pitch-perfect convergence between the intense conversations around editorial theory and method … and the widespread means to implement electronic archives and editions.” As a result, students and scholars are blessed with the Victorian Web (which, having just celebrated its 25th year, pre-dates the commercial internet) and the many sites (among others) federated by Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship (NINES).

Lorraine Janzen Kooistra and Dennis Denisoff originally conceived of The Yellow Nineties Online as a cross between a digital edition and a hypermedia archive. Having watched their editorial work, I’m inclined to think of the site as a fin-de-siècle periodical research environment, an edition wreathed in critical apparatuses: its houses facsimile editions of late 19thc aesthetic periodicals, text, period reviews, peer-reviewed essays by Victorian Studies scholars, scholarly introductions to each periodical and issue, and biographies of the authors, artists, publishers, and engravers behind the periodicals — all marked up in the archival XML specification of the digital humanities, TEI. The site, which has been peer reviewed by NINES, continues to grow. The team is currently marking up The Evergreen for publication after the completion of The Yellow Book.

A design for The Yellow Book by Aubrey Beardsley.

A design for The Yellow Book by Aubrey Beardsley.

The Yellow Nineties Online brings the editorial culture of the 1890s to life. It houses the most scathing reviews of The Pagan Review, whose entire and sole volume was edited and filled pseudonymously by William Sharp (from The Saturday Review, “A certain canniness presides over the Pagan Review, which requests ‘subscriptions in advance,’ and a certain honesty may be admired, as the Pagan Review, if it dies very young, will remit ‘unexhausted subscriptions’” and from Lippincott’s, “‘The Pagan Review’ is the alarming title of a new British magazine, which entered on its career of devastation in September”). It offers the first account that I’ve seen of John Lane and Ella D’arcy‘s hasty efforts to remove traces of Aubrey Beardsley‘s work from the fifth volume following Oscar Wilde‘s arrest. With John Lane and Richard Le Gallienne in New York “the skeleton staff [who were] left to deal with the crisis neglected to replace Beardsley’s pre-formatted designs for the spine and back cover, so the issue went to press branded with the art editor’s signature style after all. Inside the covers, trace evidence of association remained as well. One of Dauphin Meunier’s poems, ‘Chapelle Dissident,’ was dedicated ‘Pour Mr. Aubrey Beardsley’ (102), and his name appeared frequently in the advertising supplement at the back of the volume, in both John Lane’s Belles Lettres list, and, of course, in the advertised contents of the four previous Yellow Book volumes.” Every editor and publisher knows what it is to carefully prepare only to scramble in the days before publication, whether it be at the hands of scandal, late contributions, or server meltdowns.

I am now off on my own editorial and encoding adventures. I hope never to have to duck and cover as Lane and Le Gallienne did, but if I do, I will be sure to leave a trail behind. As I review my work, I can see the evidence of Dennis and Lorraine’s editorial principles — traces of their pitch-perfect blend of theory and method.

Constance Crompton

Dr. Constance Crompton is currently an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Her research interests include Victorian masculinity, digital humanities, literatures of transition (1880-1920), 19th century periodicals and popular culture, the history of science, and scholarly editing. Dr. Crompton received her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from Ryerson University, and completed her Ph.D Communication and Culture at York University.