In the Age of Xerography: Archives, Records Management, and a Whole Lotta Stuff

My capstone originated in a digital exhibit I created for the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club Archives. The exhibit explores the kinds of evidence left behind by the photocopies in La MaMa’s collections–scripts, programs, and flyers.

That evidence turned out to be much more bountiful than I had expected. As I studied the impact of photocopying technology more broadly, I began to discover that xerography offered a revelatory lens to view the development of the archival profession. Entitled “In the Age of Xerography: Archives, Records Management, and a Whole Lotta Stuff,” my thesis explores the cultural and professional ramifications of the xerographic era for the office worker, the activist, the records manager, and the archivist.

Though a wide variety of duplicative technologies were in use by 1955, the machine that would transform the information landscape did not appear until 1958. The Xerox 914 marked the start of the “age of xerography,” offering American businesses a technological and societal license to proliferate. Transformations in the processes and products of business percolated through to the culture of the workplace and the professional alliance of archives and records management. Records managers eyed an opportunity in unbounded proliferation, a chance to expand beyond the original mandate of their subfield. The machines and their products also bred opposition from archivists who saw the subfield of records management impinging on the unique cultural status of their profession. Records management was too bureaucratic, not sufficiently academic, and lacked prestige; professional roles involving active records were also seen as “secretarial” and were subsequently associated with “women’s work,” that is, undesirable and unintellectual work. This rhetoric came straight from the cultural branding surrounding the Xerox machine.

xero-image

Portion of “Advertisement 3 — No Title.” Business Quarterly 24, no. 4 (Winter 1959).

My new account of the photocopier reunites two intrinsically connected events in the twentieth century history of information: the documentary and cultural consequences of unbounded proliferation, and the subsequent estrangement of records management from the archival profession.

The “age of xerography” sheds light on contemporary as well as historical changes to the documentary landscape. In the digital era, issues concerning volume and appraisal are more acute than ever, as the reproductive affordances of modern technology eclipse those of photocopiers. And just as archivists and records managers effected a split sixty years ago, those professionals tasked with digital curatorial responsibilities are now developing their own professional principles, separate from those of archivists. If the archival profession is to maintain physical, intellectual, and professional control of born-digital documentation, we ought to heed the lessons garnered from the xerographic era.