The rhetorical canon of memory, now neglected and largely ignored (Reynolds, 1993; Welch, 1990), once involved impressive mnemonic techniques and, according to several scholars, went beyond memorization to include the generation of arguments or ideas while speaking (Carruthers, 1992, 1998). Computer technologies such as databases and search functions would seem to offer similar mnemonic possibilities, making it tempting to argue that they are "digital memory palaces," updated versions of those used by ancient rhetors. Following this thinking, ancient terminologies and practices could still apply to modern rhetors' use of computers. Analogies between the two are readily apparent. For instance, the mental work done by ancient rhetors to "place" memorable images into particular rooms in their memory palaces can be compared to modern writers placing documents into their file hierarchies. Early rhetors created these memorable images to stand in for ideas or information, such as facts in a law case (Yates, 1992, p.28), and modern writers often choose memorable names or icons for their files, indicating the information contained within. At the same time, though, past memory practices and the artifacts associated with them are only comparable with our digital work up to a certain point. Updating the canon of memory to account for new technologies and techniques can be productive, but as the core text argues, cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) offers a more comprehensive toolkit than the classical canons for attending to a wide range of literate activity. CHAT, and the theories of distributed cognition derived from it, can be used to more clearly show the integration of memory work with most scenes of literate activity, including the institutions and communities in which it takes place, the artifacts used, specific instances of production and reception, and distributed and local practices.

In this webtext, I use theories of distributed cognition to describe the memory work depicted in several scenes from my research. For the past several years I have interviewed writers about their use of computers, focusing primarily on software programs that are oriented around memory. These interviews were videotaped, and the writers were asked to demonstrate their activity with a computer, which was recorded with screen capture software. Participants were selected based on their use of certain software programs, primarily two applications: Thomson's EndNote and Microsoft's OneNote. Some interviews were conducted with only one writer; others were group interviews with six participants. All names reproduced here are pseudonyms. This research was authorized by my university's Institutional Review Board.