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one small islet in the sea of digital text
April 25th, 2013

Threads and Strings

parliamentary tax receipts{ A file of parliamentary tax receipts from 1649-1653. }
National Archives, Kew, SP 28/296. Source.

Have you ever wondered about filing systems?  (If you are not a detail-oriented person or organizational freak, I’m guessing probably not.)  But humor me and entertain the idea for a bit.  How did these systems originate and develop?  Obsolete card catalogs were organized alphabetically by topic.  As homes and businesses rely more heavily on computerized filing systems, filing cabinets of tabbed dividers and manilla folders organized alphabetically have become somewhat less common.  These systems – whether digital or physical – have a common feature:  they are organized alphabetically.  But people did not always organize information alphabetically.  Heather Wolfe, in her article Filing, seventeenth-century style, examines the ways that documents were organized in early-modern England.  She mentions the “boxes, chests, drawers, pouches, pins, spikes, thongs, and cords that helped keep material organized and safe” – a list which gives us a glimpse into how documents were stored.

She also explains that in a special collections library, “sometimes intact collections have made it through the door only to be separated once they arrived because they contain mixed materials (a practice we now resist): the printed items go to the book collection, the manuscript items go to the manuscript collection, the graphic material goes to the art collection, everything re-connectable via the accession number alone. Nearly invisible clues, such as holes,” (see article for pictures) “have often been repaired because the reason for the holes was not known or understood.”  So, essentially, modern systems of filing and cataloging archival materials undoes the organizational system that originally bundled items together.  The holes she speaks of are particularly intriguing.  The absence of a piece of a document is a clue that something once made (and filled) that space, but is now absent.  Rather than searching for a source of the space, the hole was repaired.  The holes were formed by a filing methodology whereby documents such as letters, receipts, and the like, were strung on thread or wire and subsequently hung.  Some of the strings used for filing were reinforced at the ends, like metal-tipped shoestrings.

The concept of organizing files into threads fascinated me:  physical documents held together with threads – like beads on a necklace or layers of fabric that have been stitched together. I could see a parallel in the way we also organize digital files into threads – online forum posts and email exchanges, for example.  Intrigued, I began thinking of other related words, and ways that usages had evolved from a textile context to a technological one.

dew web

{ Web.  Source. }

Net.  Network.  Web.  World Wide Web.  Cable.  String.  Thread.

I was thinking about the language we use to describe the technology we use while reading a BBC News Viewpoint article:  Why Do Neologisms Make People Angry? by Tom Chatfield.  [Note: a neologism is a newly coined word, or a new usage of an old word.]  But rather than examine newly minted technological terms, I’m fascinated by the evolution of old ones.  I mentioned ‘thread’ above…so I decided to do a bit of sleuthing in the OED.

{ Threads.  Sourcewikimedia commons }
For ‘thread,’ the earliest incidence dates to c725, and the definition is unsurprising:  “A fine cord composed of the fibres or filaments of flax, cotton, wool, silk, etc. spun to a considerable length.”  Later, in 1642, the term is being applied more abstractly to thinking, as “that which connects the successive points in anything, esp. a narrative, train of thought, or the like; the sequence of events or ideas continuing through the whole course of anything.”  Later, in 1818, the definition gains the functional sense of uniting things and providing a means for connecting them.  So the definition expands from referring to a specific physical item (a string) to encompass the item’s function (joining items or concepts together).
{ String.  Source wikimedia commons }
‘String’ also had a similar start to ‘thread.’  Beginning as a reference to a specific physical item, it gained a definition that was linked to a more abstract concept: “A cord for actuating a puppet.  Also fig., esp. in to pull the strings, to control the course of affairs, to be the concealed operator in what is ostensibly done by another; to pull strings, to exert influence privately.”  This usage, from 1860, illustrates that string’s definition also expanded to encompass a function of the item.  This is particularly interesting when linked to the definition as it is linked to computer functions:  “Computing. A linear sequence of records or data.”  So the definition has changed from a piece of thread to a sequence of data, but that sequence of data is what controls or pulls the strings of a computer (or in one case, a puppet).  This re-definition, then, encompasses both previously mentioned senses of the word.  ‘String‘ refers to both the sequence of data that forms a coded command, as well as the action that subsequently occurs as a result of the command.

Next post. . . I’ll expand this discussion into the fabric created from threads and strings:  webs and networks.