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VOL. 45 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 23, 2021

File this one away under ‘surprisingly good read’

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You need it.... now. Actually, the document you’re looking for was needed yesterday. You had it then, it was here five minutes ago, and it’s gone now – probably buried beneath 50 other pieces of paper you’ll also need soon and won’t be able to find.

So tonight, read “The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information” by Craig Robertson and there’s a hint...

A century-and-a-half ago, if a businessman (and they were usually men) wanted to look at what he’d written in a past document, he might’ve asked his clerk (again, usually a man) for help. The clerk would’ve retrieved a large, heavy book containing various documents consolidated in any sort of order. One of them would have had to try to locate the letter by going through the book, page by page.

In 1890, that all changed when the filing cabinet was invented.

“The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information”

By Craig Robertson

c.2021, University of Minnesota Press

$27.95

313 pages

For the first time, documents could officially be stacked on their sides with tabs to corral and organize them in “a system,” which was somewhat of a buzzword as furniture specifically for office use became de rigueur in early 20th century businesses. Having a filing cabinet – or two or 10 – was touted as so important that manufacturers created more furniture expressly for the task of sorting paper, and they massaged numbers to show how much time and money was saved when a clerk (often a woman, by this time) filed paperwork the new way. Yes, they boasted, file cabinets were strong and durable, but they opened so smoothly that even a woman could use them! Gasp!

Architects began designing space for file cabinets in new buildings, although, Robertson says, the cabinets were usually tucked wherever there was room for them.

Over time, locks were added, mostly for “privacy rather than security.” Organizational tabs were available from the beginning but better methods were added to the “system.” Compressors were added to keep paper from slumping inside the drawers before manila file folders were invented. By 1930, this helped standardize the size of paper that most businesses used.

“The Filing Cabinet” is a surprise, and no surprise.

On the latter, it’s a pretty esoteric subject, very narrow, and dry as Death Valley on a July noon. Author Craig Robertson adds other side-topics in this story, but even those thorough additions don’t help to liven things up much; that he frequently explains his goals and aims for this book underscores the wilted subject.

And yet – when it’s fun, it’s fun.

You’ll never again use your office furniture the same after you know how filing cabinets came about. The creation of them isn’t just about sorting paper, though: it’s also about Americans learning to become consumers. It’s a tale of steel and architecture, advertising firms, economy and science, and it’s a story that’s really quite gendered.

If you’re a reader who relishes the unconventional, if you’ve pondered arcane subjects at odd times, or if you want a conversation-breaker at the water cooler, find “The Filing Cabinet.” Yep, this is the book you need now.

Terri Schlichenmeyer’s reviews of business books are read in more than 260 publications in the U.S. and Canada.

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