Working with artifacts

August 26, 2010


It has been rewarding and challenging to imagine the objects of my study biographically – that is, as part of the lifeworlds of their users. Thus far, I’ve had the chance to see machines used by immigration attorneys, churchgoers, and others, but never was the point driven home so clearly as in my recent visit to London. I received an unexpected email from a young woman in London who had seen my blog, and was interested in getting my thoughts on where her parents might find a good home for their machine. They were in the midst of a major remodeling, and decided that it was time to part company with the typewriter – and were even contemplating sending it to the landfill. Quite fortunately, I was already planning to visit London (en route to Porthcurno, photos to follow), and so was able to pay a visit, conduct a brief interview, and then ship the machine back home to the United States. It now sits in my office, where I am planning to begin my own training (using Chinese typewriting manuals from the 1930s). Participant observation, I suppose.

Take a close look at the character chart pictured here, employed for decades by the London typist with whom I spoke. Along with the machine itself, this character chart traveled from Singapore – where they purchased the machine – to London – where they immigrated many decades ago. Each time she needed to remind herself of the disposition of a certain character, it was to this chart that she turned, and over which her fingers passed however many countless times. Part of my responsibility now is to figure out how one narrates these frayed edges, so to speak.


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