I recently picked up the book “Applied Secretarial Practice,” published in 1934 by the Gregg Publishing Company (the same Gregg of Gregg shorthand). It’s fascinating in so many ways—even the little ways that language has changed. Many compound words were still separate, e.g. “business man.” The verb “to emphasize” seemingly did not exist, and is always expressed as “to secure emphasis.” And the masculine is used as the generic third-person pronoun rigorously, even when referring to secretaries, who were universally women at that time.
There’s a whole chapter on office equipment, most of which is barely recognizable today, of course. The dial telephone was a fairly recent innovation at that time, and its use is explained in the book.
But what really strikes me is that, out of 44 chapters, 8 are on filing. You wouldn’t think that filing would be such a big deal (well, I wouldn’t have thought it). You would be wrong. What with cross-references, pull cards, rules for alphabetizing (or “alphabeting” in this book) in every ambiguous situation, different methods of collation, transfer filing, etc, clearly, there’s a lot to it.
It got me thinking about how, even though I have pretty rigorous file nomenclature and folder hierarchies on my computer, I’m not organizing my files with anything like the level of meticulous care that secretaries back then practiced as a matter of course. For the most part, if I want to find something on my computer (or anywhere on the Internet), I can search for it.
And that reminded me of a post by Mark Pilgrim from years ago, Million dollar markup (linking to the Wayback Machine post, because the author has completely erased his web presence). His general point was that when you control your own information, you can use “million dollar markup” (essentially metadata and structure) to make that information easier to search or manipulate; a company like Google has “million dollar search” to deal with messy, disorganized data that is outside their control. Back in 1934, people had no choice but to apply million-dollar markup to their information if they wanted to have any hope of finding it. The amount of overhead in making a piece of information retrievable in the future, and retrieving it, is eye-opening.
Consider that to send out a single piece of business correspondence, a secretary would take dictation from her boss, type up the letter (with a carbon), perhaps have her boss sign it, send the original down to the mailroom, and file the copy (along with any correspondence that letter was responding to). It makes me wonder what would have been considered a reasonable level of productivity in 1934. I’ve already sent 17 pieces of e-mail today. And written this blog post. And done no extra work to ensure that any of it will be retrievable in the future, beyond making sure that I have good backups.