The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information

by Craig Robertson, University of Minnesota Press, 2021, 312 pp.
Paperback $34.95 ISBN: 978-1-5179-0946-8 

Gripped by anxiety, I wrote to Information & Culture that I’d be delighted to review Craig Robertson’s new book The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information. Was this the book I’d hoped to write? A few pages into the preface, I was reassured by Robertson’s experience of a number of people telling him that “the book I wanted to research—was researching, was writing, was revising for publication—had already been written… How could I not know the work of business historian JoAnne Yates or the late media studies scholar Cornelia Vismann? Didn’t I realize they had already written my book?” (xi). 

The Filing Cabinet really is a new contribution to media and office history (and not the book I hope to write, as great as it is). Instead, Robertson’s book uses the filing cabinet as a way into the study of information storage as shaped by the cultural values prevailing when the cabinet was at the height of its use: “In the early twentieth century an encounter with a filing cabinet was an interaction with an emerging set of economic ideas” (128). Themes of competitive advantage, efficiency in the use of time and space, and feminized labor emerge throughout the book to tie the technology of the cabinet to corporate capitalism, class, and heteropatriarchy. 

The book is divided into two parts: “The Cabinet” and “Filing.” The first part begins by exploring the verticality of the filing cabinet as a space-saving measure that also aesthetically related the cabinet to the skyscraper, with its connotations of modernity. Chapter 2 considers the filing cabinet’s strength and concepts of integrity, beginning with a discussion of the development of various types of file folders that sought to organize and physically protect papers. The chapter locates these developments alongside the “age of steel,” further illuminating the connections between the materiality of the cabinet, corporate capitalism, and modernity. It’s in chapter 2 that we get some fascinating information on the lengths manufacturers went to demonstrate their products’ durability (in one example, using a room-sized furnace).  

The third chapter looks at the internal organization of the cabinet, and here Robertson coins the term “cabinet logic” to describe the internal structuring of a cabinet’s inner space through partitions that “made the particular visible” (25), achieving efficiency in time through faster retrieval, and achieving efficiency in space through compressors that ensured files’ verticality. Another highlight of the book is here: a history of the manila folder that surfaces the material networks of empire and capital that produced these apparently mundane objects. 

Part 2, “Filing,” pulls back from the object of the cabinet to consider the meanings around its use, with a chapter called “Granular Certainty” that places the cabinet in the context of early twentieth century moves towards the systematization of office work. This object-oriented look at scientific management should appeal to readers interested in organization studies or the history of records management as a profession, though records managers might reject some of Robertson’s assertions—for example that “white, middle-class women also attempted (and failed) to make filing a profession equivalent to librarianship” (26). Similarly, archivists may be disappointed that archival studies literature is absent from the book’s reference list, which has been commented about in Robertson’s work before.i 

In “Automatic Filing,” Robertson explores the machinic quality of the cabinet evoked in advertising materials and the office management literature of the time, where the cabinet is conceived of as a brain or site of corporate memory. Through allusions to automation, Robertson shows how the cabinet, as a labor-saving device, drives the labor of the clerk into the background. This leads to an examination of the gendering of information work in chapter 6. Here Robertson exposes how the cabinet and its associated activities existed within a gendered culture where the supposed dexterity of women’s hands and the assumed limited cognitive labor of filing and recall situated women at the cabinet, while men behind desks processed information and used it to create knowledge and make decisions. Class, attitudes towards marriage, and notions of the corporation as a family emerge and lead neatly to chapter 7, which looks at filing cabinets in the home, as well as how cabinet logic seeped into the organization of other domestic spaces such as closets and kitchen cabinets. An afterword gestures to the vestiges of the cabinet in the common information technologies of today.  

Robertson’s study is a uniquely American look at filing as it participates in nineteenth and twentieth century capitalism and sexism, but one that opens many questions: do conclusions that the US business world was the site where systems and efficiency became “critical to the organization of industry and commerce” (134) stand when read in the context of the longer history of European registry practices, which resulted from the demands of and facilitated the spread of global capitalism? In thinking about integrity, does the foregrounding of the cabinet sideline the significance of common law understandings of documentary evidence or the medieval chancery practices that set in motion a discourse on informational integrity that continues today?  

As generative as The Filing Cabinet is in these ways, the book also helps to fill in the sometimes-sketchy history of the evolution of American record-keeping practices, and it makes a new contribution to what Stacy Wood has called “critical bureaucracy studies” by using the material objects of office work to expose whole networks of problematic cultural norms and extractive economic forces that live on in the information technologies of the present. Along the way, there are tantalizing glimpses of the competitive world of the office furniture market, enjoyable moments of thick description, and generous illustrations. 

James Lowry, City University of New York