Barnwoggler Redux: A 1920s Vision of Library and Research Automation

A Robinson Findex card for personnel management, 1920 (Internet Archive).

In 1926 Binkley wrote a story “Barnwoggler’s Invention” which involved the invention of a research machine. I posted about it ten years ago (!), when all I knew of it came from a couple of mentions in letters to and from Binkley. In 2014, I visited the archives at Case Western Reserve University, where there is a small collections of Binkley’s papers, and I learned that the text of the story is there. This post presents the text. In a future post I will look at the technologies that Barnwoggler incorporates into his invention.


It turns out that Barnwoggler is a librarian, not a professor as I assumed in the earlier post. (I won’t repeat the background and my conjectures from that post here.) This connects Barnwoggler more closely with Binkley, who was reference librarian at the Hoover War Library while working towards his Ph.D. at Stanford. The point of the story is not the possibilities of information technology, but the relation between librarians and scholars in the research process. In 1931 Binkley summed up this relationship, in the context of document reproduction technologies and policies:

The research problem as it comes to the scholar’s desk usually calls for a technique of note taking. The reproduction of research materials in book or filmslide [i.e. microfilm] form ends the work of library institutions. But the scholar’s work begins where that of the library ends. And here techniques of reproduction ought to be keyed in with the problem of organizing note systems rather than the problem of preserving materials.1

In “Barnwoggler’s Invention”, written before he had crossed over from the library to the academic side of the relationship, that line is blurred, even erased:

The [scholar’s] bibliography, [Barnwoggler] thought, was not unlike a section of his own library catalogue; the notes were similar, though more detailed; the manuscript merely a transcript of the notes. (P3)

The less the scope that is left for researchers’ work, the more credit librarians deserve for the final publication; and yet they receive none. Barnwoggler invents a machine that can be wheeled through the stacks as it selects books on a given topic, and then prints out a research report ready for publication. He uses it to out-publish any researcher. He pretends to see nothing unusual in this: ‘“I have always said,” he would reply to their queries, “that library training is the best possible preparation for research work of any kind.”’ (P10) He is finally caught running the machine by the college president. The scandal in hushed up, but the machine is destroyed and Barnwoggler returns to obscurity. “Barnwoggler’s Invention” therefore starts as a librarian’s revenge fantasy in which the librarian is a “terrible free lance” raiding all fields of research, but in the end the scholars re-establish their hegemony.

This negotiation of boundaries is a common topic on library and archives Twitter today, and connects with the topic of precarious employment in modern academia. In their provocative 2016 essay on Humanities Computing, Allington, Brouilette and Golumbia updated Binkley’s vision of the librarian/scholar relationship to the digital age with their description of Humanities Computing centres:

These were mostly run not by full-time professors but by staff members from the library and elsewhere. Often enough, this support was understood very literally: Humanities Computing professionals were frequently called upon to help professors get their computers to work. They were also called upon to build or to help build digital projects (especially archives) for which professors did not have technical expertise. It is understandable that Humanities Computing specialists might have seen themselves as second-class citizens, especially in the North American university, with its academic caste system that divides workers into “faculty” and “staff.” North American universities are organized around the research generated, or at least directed, by faculty. Faculty are immediately rewarded for those kinds of research activities, while staff tend to be rewarded in less direct ways, if at all.2

Barnwoggler the librarian ends up using his technical skills to out-scholar the scholars. The judgement passed by the academics is based on his process and not his products:

His conduct had been unethical from first to last. A man’s name on an article was supposed to stand as a guarantee that the writing was the work of his own hand. No machine product could ever take the place of the patient and honorable work of a research scholar. On the contrary, the very existence of such machines was likely to discourage that habit of careful scholarship which was the crowning glory of academic life. (P13)

He is condemned for offences against academic propriety. No one, neither Barnwoggler nor his judges, considers whether the artificial intelligence of his invention might be a boon to humanity by producing knowledge beyond what human scholars can achieve alone.

The story is a playful anticipation of the reforms of scholarly publishing and scholarly communication which Binkley would begin to advocate a few years later.

  • Use of near-print technologies to reduce costs, minimum print runs, and set-up time for publications
    • Abandon the authority of letterpress, accept the typewritten book
    • Abandon the authority of print, accept near-print: e.g. hectograph, mimeograph
    • Extend publication opportunities to students and amateur scholars
  • Accept microfilm for auxiliary publication (data, tables, documents, etc.)
  • Accept collaboration from non-professional workers
    • WPA work in indexing and abstracting
    • Late work on amateur scholarship
  • Extend published status to everything in a library catalogue or periodical index through microfilming

The files at CWRU contain a rejection form-letter from the Atlantic Monthly in July 1926, and one from Harper’s Magazine dated Christmas Eve of that year. The family papers contain an acknowledgement of its receipt by the literary agents Brandt and Brandt in Nov. 1927, and their rejection the following month. It is easy to see why the story (reproduced below) did not find a publisher. As a story it is no more than a sketch, with no action or dialogue and little characterization. It depends entirely on the idea of the invention and some verbal play for its effect. It has, I hope, a little more interest today, as a vision of automated research a decade before Wells’ World Brain and two before Bush’s Memex.

Notes on the text

When I described “Barnwoggler’s Invention” in the previous posting, the main evidence I had was a letter to Binkley from his friend Merv Crobaugh, offering advice on improving the story for publication. A few years later I learned that the story itself is preserved in the Case Western University Archives, and I was able to see it on a trip to Cleveland in October 2014.3 The text is presented below.

The Robert C. Binkley papers at CWRU mostly date from the time before he came to Cleveland in 1930, with the bulk from his time at Stanford before 1927. Many of the items are chapters from his dissertation; others are drafts of stories and articles, including some by Frances, which the Binkleys tried to sell for publication while they were living in New York in 1927-29. There is no obvious reason why these three boxes ended up in the archives while similar materials remained with the family papers. For example, the family papers contain a carbon of a 1928 letter to the Library of Congress asking when the subject term for the First World War was established, and the CWRU collection contains the response.4

The explanation for the presence of the papers at CWRU is probably to be found in the process by which Binkley’s office was cleared by Frances in the fall of 1940, a few months after his death. The following year she was asked by a member of the department whether she had some missing departmental papers, and she was in no mood to be helpful:

Last fall when it became necessary for me to move my husband’s materials from the office at Mather I spoke to several people, to Miss Cameron, to Miss Wells, and to yourself, as you will recall, about the interest of the department in some of the records among his papers. No one at that time was interested in going over the material with me. It was left to me, after Miss Barry removed the Joint Committee files, to pack all of the books and personal files and transfer them. Since I do not own filing cases the papers had to be packed in boxes. Since I had to move the boxes in my small car, carrying them down the stairs myself, there are a great many small boxes, which makes search for a particular item rather difficult.5

It would not be surprising if she overlooked some papers in the clearance; and it would have been easy enough for someone to have discarded them later, since they had no current value and were mostly unconnected with Western Reserve University. I’m grateful to the archives (and whoever sent them there) for preserving them.

There are four versions of “Barnwoggler’s Invention” (in order of composition):

A: Headed “Notes / Barnwoggler’s Invention”; 3 typed pages, the first two single-spaced and the last 1.5 spaced, and made up of pieces cut and pasted together. The first paragraph is in note form (beginning: “Barnwoggler a librarian. Invented a machine to do research.”); after that the text is similar to the later versions.

B: Five typed pages, 1.5 spaced. The first page expands the notes at the beginning of A; the rest is fairly close to A, with a few alterations.

C: One page, ms, partly in black and partly in blue ink. Provides a new opening paragraph to be inserted at the beginning of B.

D: Six typed pages, 1.5 spaced, typed professionally by Frances (with her distinctive triple-spacing after a sentence, except after a question mark or exclamation point, where a double space is used). D combines the texts of B and C, with further alterations. Stapled to p.5 are three notepad slips with pencilled text describing the faculty’s judgement: this passage was already present in B, so these notes must have been written for A and inserted here by mistake. D was intended for submission to publishers, for it has Binkley’s name and address on the first page and “30” at the end in the journalistic style. There are some pencilled alterations which may represent final thoughts after the text was returned by one publisher and before it was submitted to the next.

The text presented here is that of D, including the pencilled alterations, taken as Binkley’s final version. You can link to paragraphs in this text by adding the appropriate fragment identifier to the url of this page: e.g. “#P13”.

Barnwoggler’s Invention

Robert C. Binkley

[P1] The college which employed Barnwoggler as librarian was small, but of the highest rank; the students who frequented it were few, but unusually intelligent; the faculty were leaders in their respective fields. Each professor published his book a year, and even the instructors wrote articles. The research work which so distinguished the college was done in the Library where all came alike to Barnwoggler for their material, and Barnwoggler ministered to them all.

[P2] For Barnwoggler was a librarian of the old-fashioned kind; he knew his books thoroughly, and kept mysterious catalogues that no one but himself could understand. When men would come to him with a project for an article which they wished to write, he would go through his library, poking here and searching there [p.2] until he filled his little creaking truck. He believed that one truck-load was sufficient for an article or special study, and five truck-loads for a book.

[P3] It came about that Barnwoggler thought he perceived mechanical regularities in all research work: from bibliography to notes, from notes to outline, from outline to manuscript and thence to publication. The bibliography, he thought, was not unlike a section of his own library catalogue; the notes were similar, though more detailed; the manuscript merely a transcript of the notes. Being by nature more a mechanic than a scholar he never wrote up or published these observations, but instead produced a curious invention.

[P4] Barnwoggler’s invention developed by successive improvement from a comparatively simple mechanism which he secretly devised in order to save time in the cataloguing of books. From an electric cataloguing machine he developed a book-detector, from a book-detector an automatic assimilator. These were the intermediate stages. In its final form the invention combined the principles of electric typewriter and player piano, radio and photostat, findex card system and adding machine. Barnwoggler could then take the book-detector, run it through the stacks with its delicate gauges set on a certain problem, arrange the selected books in the assimilator, turn on the current, and out would come page after page of manuscript ready for publication. [p.3]

[P5] Barnwoggler was exultant at the success of his invention, but he did not know how to exploit his success. The miserly jealousy of a recluse led him to keep his invention a secret.

[P6] There was a certain assistant professor of philosophy who was on very friendly terms with the librarian. One morning Barnwoggler offered to write up a paper which the professor had been putting off from month to month. An hour later he laid before his astonished patron a masterful report on “The Influence of Boethius on Hedonism in the Fifteenth Century.” When the report was published in the Anatomical and Philosophical Review, the grateful scholar gave Barnwoggler an honorarium of twenty dollars. There ensued a working partnership between the librarian and the philosopher which quickly made of the latter a distinguished man.

[P7] It was at this point that Barnwoggler made his mistake. He allowed himself to be carried away by ambition. Instead of remaining contented with his modest salary, eked out by the generosity of the savant who was using the product of his invention, he thought that he might himself win fame and distinction. Why should not the articles produced by his machine glorify his name? Feeling like a mischievous child, he set the machine for “Neglected Aspects of the Diplomacy of Suarez at the Council of Trent,” and had the pleasure of seeing the monograph appear under his name in the Methodological Journal of History. [p.4]

[P8] It is a dangerous thing for a man who has lived long in obscurity to see his name appear once in print. Barnwoggler took a deep breath and headed for his fall.

[P9] Barnwoggler’s name began to blossom in all the learned journals of the world. His articles, and answers to his articles and reviews of his articles became so numerous that it was impossible for him to keep track of them. His long experience as a librarian had taught him what fields were richest in topics for monographs, and had given him a keen sense for neglected aspects. His detached position, outside of any university department, made him a terrible free lance, who could wander from field to field assaulting and conquering the most diverse strongholds of scholarship.

[P10] The people around the college were at first amazed at his astounding industry, but soon began to look for some other explanation for his marvelous productivity. Some suggested that he must have been saving articles for years and had now at last “begun to publish”. Others suspected that he had a corps of assistants secretly working for him. A few hinted darkly that he must be stealing the work of other men. But these explanations fell away before the stupendous continuity of Barnwoggler’s activity. Several men on the faculty spent whole afternoons poring over old files of periodicals in the thought that Barnwoggler’s product might be merely old stuff which with the passage of time had become new again. But no [p.5] one was able to propose a really satisfactory explanation, and Barnwoggler himself was never very clear. “I have always said,” he would reply to their queries, “that library training is the best possible preparation for research work of any kind.”

[P11] As time went on wonder gave way to a feeling of dreadful uneasiness in the breasts of the members of the faculty. No one felt safe in any research he might undertake. Here was an Associate Professor of English who had been working for five years on Syllabification in Chaucer, only to find that the meat of his conclusions were set forth in an article by Barnwoggler. And when he tried to discuss with the librarian the principles involved he got no satisfaction at all. Barnwoggler did not seem to be willing to discuss Chaucer in any but the most superficial way.

[P12] It would have been wise for Barnwoggler to have desisted from his extraordinary activity when he first sensed this growing spirit of hostility, but his head had been turned by success. That he should be exposed sooner or later was, no doubt, inevitable. It happened that the President, while inspecting the library, caught him in the act of grinding out a five thousand word article on “Methods of Cultivation of the Red Turnip in Norway.” Barnwoggler made no pretense of innocence, and seemed hardly to be ashamed of what he had done. But one might have noticed the following day that every member of the faculty was enjoying a delicious feeling of righteous indignation. [p.6]

[P13] The whole affair was taken up informally at the faculty club, and then formally, in a meeting of the Academic Council. That Barnwoggler had been mechanically ingenious no one could deny, but all agreed that his ingenuity had been sadly misplaced. His conduct had been unethical from first to last. A man’s name on an article was supposed to stand as a guarantee that the writing was the work of his own hand. No machine product could ever take the place of the patient and honorable work of a research scholar. On the contrary, the very existence of such machines was likely to discourage that habit of careful scholarship which was the crowning glory of academic life. Barnwoggler had been so clever that it seemed impossible, for technical reasons, to convict him of plagiarism. It was, perhaps, imprudent to sever his connection with the College because of the scandal that might result. The wisest thing to do was to try to hush the whole thing up and allow Barnwoggler to retain his position, requiring only his pledge to discontinue his unethical conduct.

[P14] It is not positively known whether Barnwoggler dismantled his own machine, or some one of the younger and more impulsive members of the faculty broke into the Library and destroyed it. Certain it is that the machine was never used again, and Barnwoggler dropped back again into obscurity, from which he has never since emerged.

  1. Methods, 1931, p.118↩︎

  2. Allington, Daniel, et al. “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities.” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 2016.↩︎

  3. There are three boxes in the “Papers of Robert C. Binkley” (3HB5) in the Case Western Reserve University Archives. Versions of “Barnwoggler’s Invention” are in box 2, folders 2 and 8. Other materials related to Binkley’s work are found in “Records of Department of History, Western Reserve University” (3KN), “Records of Mather College Library, Western Reserve University” (8ID), and “Records of the Faculty, Flora Stone Mather College” (22F), and some other collections.↩︎

  4. Doc. 1606: RCB to the Catalogue Division, Library of Congress, 1928-03-04; W.F. Koenig to RCB, 1928-03-14, CWRU, folder 3HB5-1-1. Binkley wanted to know when the subject term “European War” had been adopted in preference to “World War”, since “[y]ou are in a way supreme arbiters in many fine points in the classification of thought, and like Adam in the Old Testament you give names to things.” Koenig reported that “European War” had been used since 1914 and defended its use: “European war it was, even if non-European states were drawn into it.”↩︎

  5. Doc. 8088: FWB to Jacob Meyer, [1941].↩︎