Architects of Memory: Information and Rhetoric in a Networked Archival Age

by Nathan R. Johnson, University of Alabama Press, 2020,224 pp. trade cloth/eBook, $49.95 ISBN: 978-0817320607

Nathan R. Johnson’s Architects of Memory: Information and Rhetoric in a Networked Archival Age is a relatively brief and eminently readable treatise on the intertwined histories of librarianship, information science, and information technology. For any scholar working in one of the aforementioned areas yet hoping to better understand its precise relationship to the others, this book will prove invaluable. Architects of Memory makes secondary contributions in the areas of memory and rhetoric studies, which are equally well-grounded in historical and classical references, although slightly tangential to the book’s other foci.  

At its heart, this book is an investigation concerning the “sociotechnical regimes of memory practices” (2), with a focus on North America in the twentieth century. For the most part, Johnson’s focus is trained on memory practices as manifested in a genealogy that runs from Progressive Era public libraries in the United States, up through postwar intelligence agencies and scientific research institutions, and into the negotiation, in the later twentieth century, of academic departments devoted to studying and teaching librarianship and/or information science. The book is at its strongest when it engages with the fine-grained identification of connections between these related and yet not entirely coterminous threads. As such, it would make an excellent addition to any foundational library and information science syllabus or review of literature concerning the fields’ histories. 

The subject matter discussed in Architects of Memory overlaps somewhat with other well-known books in the field of Library and Information Science (LIS), including Memory Practices in the Sciences by Geoffrey C. Bowker, and A History of Modern Librarianship, coedited by Pamela Spence Richards, Wayne A.Wiegand and Marija Dalbello.1 Yet where Bowker focuses on scientific knowledge work, and A History of Modern Librarianship focuses on libraries as such, Johnson’s work deftly weaves through the interstitial spaces between these tangled traditions. Particular attention is paid to key figures and their careers. For example, Chapter 3 addresses Georgia Tech librarian Dorothy Crosland and her work bringing librarians into contact with the United States Office of Scientific Information Services during the 1960s. Chapter 4 tells the story of former military intelligence agent Robert S. Taylor and his role in shaping the School of Information at Syracuse University, as well as the American Society for Information Science, during the 1970s. These case studies nicely encompass both the historical and conceptual contributions of Johnson’s work, illustrating the ways that social relationships and intellectual techniques work together to define different regimes of memory. 

Although Johnson’s narrative and theoretical perspectives come through clearly when discussing the intellectual history and key historical figures in library and information sciences, much of the introduction and final two chapters are devoted to slightly divergent subject matter: the rhetorical construction of support for particular memory techniques, with substantial time spent considering the use of coins as currency in antiquity. This bold theoretical leap is not entirely without warrant or precedent, but its position alongside Johnson’s otherwise chronologically continuous selection of modern case studies lends the work a somewhat bifurcated character. Other idiosyncrasies related to Johnson’s mixed audience of LIS scholars and rhetoricians include his usage of the term commonplace to describe a commonly used idea, rather than to describe the commonplace books perhaps more commonly associated with the term among bibliographers, archivists, or rare book catalogers. 

Overall, the terminological and disciplinary quirks present in Architect of Memory do little to reduce the book’s value for readers concerned with information infrastructures, the history of information professions, or the history of American libraries. On the contrary, as the book’s case studies show, these sorts of conceptual divergences are the frequent result of important work engaging broad publics and diverse intellectual communities. With all this in mind, readers will likely find that Architects of Memory makes a meaningful contribution in the construction of deeper historical knowledge concerning memory techniques in general, as well as specific memory-oriented professions such as in the areas of librarianship, archives, and information technology. 

James A. Hodges, University of Texas at Austin

Notes:

1) Geoffrey C.Bowker, Memory Practices in the Sciences (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005); Pamela Spence Richards, Wayne A. Wiegand, and Marija Dalbello, eds.,A History of Modern Librarianship: Constructing the Heritage of Western Cultures(Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited/ABC-CLIO, 2015).