stationery, n.

© Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum

1350-1400; Middle English stacio(u)ner. From Medieval Latin statiōnārius, noun use of the adj.: stationary, i.e., pertaining to dealers with permanent shops as distinguished from itinerant vendors.

Why are stationers so called? Why, when we talk of stationery are we referring to one kind of collection of objects – pens, writing materials, published works – and not another – viands or vegetables for example? Paper, pens, manuscripts and printed texts can be sold in locations changing or unchanging over time – just as vegetables or viands can. However, stationers – as opposed to butchers or greengrocers, gold-smiths or jewellers – were named not for what they did but for where they did it. A stationer was identified as one who worked from a permanent station – a place with a specific spatial identity in a wider system of transfer and exchange.

Stationers were stationed in two ways. For the first, they were ascribed a specific place in a system of knowledge transfer that sought to ensure that information was not corrupted as it travelled through time and over distance. Within manuscript culture stationers enabled the multiplication and promulgation of documents that were authorized by larger systems of knowledge and authority – the church, the university. Like the stationes of the ancient Roman cursus publicus, stationers supplied the means by which information validated by the powerful could travel. The stationes of the Roman courier system provided horses and men to transport documents around the Empire. Stationarii, under an obligation to an authority, transformed an authorized texts into “bites” of information, peciae, that could be rented out, circulated and copied simultaneously, speeding the reproduction and dissemination of the authorized texts themselves.

In a second way stationers had to be stationary; they occupied given locations in an architectural and urban framework. A stationer who worked from a fixed location was bona fide in a way in which an itinerant bookseller might not be. A stationer was a trusted collaborator for an academic institute of endeavor – like a university – or a social one – like the knowledge systems that existed in the dense urban fabric of London. In London, at the point at which print was established as the medium in which knowledge was being exchanged and translated (from the empirical experiments of the new science into texts; from international systems of enquiry to local ones) the Royal Company of Stationers included – was dominated by – book sellers and printers whose numbers were limited and whose location carefully controlled. In London the booksellers who facilitated intellectual discovery were clustered in a few streets; St Pauls Churchyard; Little Britain. Booksellers and printers handled the flow of printed information and printed the urban fabric itself with their presence.

Stationery, then, welds together three kinds of actant – a place of permanent occupancy within a specific urban framework (the location of production, transaction and storage); a skilled actor (book seller or master printer) and a group of particular kinds of object (manuscripts, books, paper, pens, ink, materials for permanently fixing messages such that they can take flight). Like stationary as an adjective, Stationery as a noun refers to something that is always on its way somewhere else. Its etymology refers to the fluidity of exchange and of the momentary acts spatial, architectural and urban fixity that must be introduced to govern and facilitate such processes.

By Tim Anstey.

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