The Census Has Always Been “Big Data”

The Census has always been “Big Data,” with or without computers and the automation of information.

Census and Sensibility: A Little History of Big Data at IEEE

Consider just one use of today’s big data with a deep history and a major impact on computational technology: keeping track of a country’s citizenry. This has often been accomplished through a periodic counting, or census. Many references to censuses exist in the ancient world, from Egyptian tomb inscriptions and the Hebrew Bible to, perhaps, most famously, the “worldwide” Roman census described in the Book of Luke in the New Testament.

The Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph register for the Census in Ancient Rome
The Virgin and Saint Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic at the Chora Church, Constantinople 1315–20 — via Wikipedia

5 MB of Data on 62,500 Punched Cards

large stack of punched cards
“Programmer standing beside punched cards” “This stack of 62,500 punched cards — 5 MB worth — held the control program for the giant SAGE military computer network.” ca. 1955 (via the Computer History Museum)

Explaining data storage in a visual way has always been difficult, but especially so with the transition to magnetic tape in the 1950s and 1960s.

Photographs of punched cards help show the enormity of the task at hand, and also the materiality of the information.

5 megabytes of data seems pretty insignificant nowadays, when terabyte hard drives are a common feature in personal computers.

1 TB = 1,000,000 MB (now that would be a lot of punched cards!)

From the Computer History Museum’s online exhibit on Memory and Storage

Files and Folders Before Computers

Filing Cabinets, a Neglected Piece of Business History, by Linda Gross, the Hagley Library

Dr. Robertson is an associate professor of media history at Northeastern University. He explained to us that he is currently researching the early history of the filing cabinet (1890s-1930s). Robertson contends that the filing cabinet has been largely neglected in the history of information technologies, with punch card machines (a clearer precursor to computers) taking a leading role in histories of early 20th century information technologies—this despite the importance of “files” and folders” to how we organize information on computers.

“This Big, Urgent Question of Protection for Operating Files and Records,” Remington Rand Inc. brochure, ca. 1948, Hagley Digital Archives

Matthew Kirschenbaum – Track Changes

Kirschenbaum’s Tumblr blog on his book project –

Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Literary History of Word Processing, Harvard University Press blog post:

It’s interesting to see how Kirschenbaum’s research on the effects of one technological innovation—word processing—is being so shaped by his own embrace of another, social networking. Until recently, it wasn’t often that we got to watch research unfold so publicly, but Kirschenbaum’s style of transparent, internet-based process documentation is becoming more and more common, especially among practitioners of the digital humanities.

Over the years I’ve used WordStar, WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, and many other word processing programs. At the moment I’m moving to Scrivener for larger projects like my dissertation, and Apple Pages for everyday writing.

WordStar running in DOS, ca. 1980s (via Wikipedia)


Gladwell on the Social Life of Paper

Paper strips shown at

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2002 article on paperwork at The New Yorker.

“The Social Life of Paper” (link to The New Yorker)
(can’t seem to get the ads out of the way of the text though) link:
(ad-free, but URLs have been changed, old link no longer works)

It is only if paper’s usefulness is in the information written directly on it that it must be stored. If its usefulness lies in the promotion of ongoing creative thinking, then, once that thinking is finished, the paper becomes superfluous. The solution to our paper problem, they write, is not to use less paper but to keep less paper. Why bother filing at all? Everything we know about the workplace suggests that few if any knowledge workers ever refer to documents again once they have filed them away, which should come as no surprise, since paper is a lousy way to archive information. It’s too hard to search and it takes up too much space. Besides, we all have the best filing system ever invented, right there on our desks — the personal computer. That is the irony of the P.C.: the workplace problem that it solves is the nineteenth-century anxiety.

Q & A with Craig Robertson on The Passport in America

Craig Robertson, by Christopher Klein at the Boston Globe

The assumption behind the system set up after World War I was that you needed an identity document. Of course, this is a time when very few people had driver’s licenses, so the birth certificate was the key document. The US didn’t achieve universal birth registration until 1933, however, and in 1942 the Census Bureau estimated that 40 percent of Americans still lacked birth certificates. So the State Department required those without birth certificates to get sworn statements from one of three people who was deemed to have been able to witness the birth: the mother, a doctor, or a midwife. And if none of those three were available, a friend who was a US citizen had to vouch for your citizenship. So you were no longer seen as a reliable source of your own identity. You needed someone else to verify it.

United States Passport for Fred Soper, 1920 (via National Library of Medicine)
United States Passport for American epidemiologist, Fred Soper, 1920 (via National Library of Medicine)

Paperwork Studies as an Historical Field

The Paper Trail Through History, by Jennifer Schuessler, the New York Times:

Ms. Gitelman’s argument may seem like an odd lens on familiar history. But it’s representative of an emerging body of work that might be called “paperwork studies.” True, there are not yet any dedicated journals or conferences. But in history, anthropology, literature and media studies departments and beyond, a group of loosely connected scholars are taking a fresh look at office memos, government documents and corporate records, not just for what they say but also for how they circulate and the sometimes unpredictable things they do.