Information hoarders

A Harvard history professor explains how human societies evolved to collect, organize and use data

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Information hoarders
This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

History professor and author of “Too Much to Know” Ann Blair tells us what researchers have been discovering about how earlier human societies collected, organized and used information.

The BrowserOur topic is the history of information. Before we broach the books, please sketch the evolution of this subject as a field of academic inquiry.

The history of information has developed especially in the last 10 years. It is a subset of intellectual and cultural history, which is a subset of general history. “Information” today typically refers to all the stuff we find on the web and there is so much of it that we have become especially aware of the need to select and manage information. But information management has been practiced for a very long time, even if it wasn’t called that. Looking back in the past to ancient Rome, the Middle Ages or the emergence of printing in the early modern period, historians have started to ask new questions about how earlier periods accumulated and managed information. Information took many forms in the past, as it does today, but the forms that have survived down to us are mostly textual – descriptions, examples, anecdotes written down and transmitted through copying or the survival of the original texts.

The history of information offers a new way of looking at texts that intellectual historians have often studied before, by emphasizing how a text was consulted, read and used in the past. For example, back in the first century of the Common Era, the Roman naturalist Pliny boasted that he had collected 20,000 facts from 2,000 authors in his 38-volume “Natural History.” That text became a key source of information for medieval encyclopedias and all kinds of texts about the natural world up to the 18th century. Historians of information look at the forms in which the text circulated and was presented, to see how the information was made accessible in different times, through alphabetical indexing or adding marginal keywords or through the way the text was laid out on the page.

Please explain the distinction you’re making between information and knowledge.



It’s a common distinction made by people who talk about these issues. Knowledge is specific to a person. It’s information that has been filtered by a person’s interests and integrated into his or her understanding. All that stuff you get from a Google search is information. You select a few bits from search and learn more about them, and some of them became part of your knowledge base – integrated into the arguments you make and how you think about things. Information itself is like a treasure chest – multiple users can draw from it and make knowledge from it in different ways.

Similarly, when using a large reference book – whether a papyrus roll from antiquity, a parchment manuscript from the Middle Ages or printed books from the 16th century – readers were expected to select bits of interest to reuse them. As historians we do that too with the old books we study, selecting interesting parts to analyze, and as historians of information we especially try to figure out how people in the past went about the process of selecting information and making use of it.

“A Social History of Knowledge,” by Cambridge professor of cultural history Peter Burke, seems like a good starting point. Please tell us about it.

This book doesn’t actually focus on the term “information” but it talks about the institutions that made knowledge possible. Its first volume runs “From Gutenberg to Diderot” – in other words, mid-15th to mid-18th century. A second volume stretches “From the Encyclopédie to Wikipedia”, from the mid-18th century to the 21st century.

Peter Burke is a great cultural historian who has worked on many different aspects of the transmission of knowledge – including, for example, how historians worked, or how ideas about good behavior at court were transmitted. In this synthetic pair of books he explores the question: What were the institutions that were collecting, classifying, sorting and disseminating information?

In the Middle Ages the clerisy or clerical elite had the corner on learned knowledge by commenting on authoritative texts in Latin at the universities. But by 1600 many other institutions generated information in new ways. Church and state bureaucracy started using questionnaires to gather standardized reports from their jurisdictions. As cities grew, so did the tools they used to spread and collect information, including town criers, notice boards, and putting numbers on houses. There were also new institutions: Academies where elite men with specific interests gathered more or less formally to share and make information, salons in which women played a prominent role as arbiters of taste, coffee houses where people would gather to read and exchange news. The era of the public library didn’t really begin until the 19th century, but there were private membership libraries in the 18th century. These are some of the places where people from different professional origins interacted and exchanged ideas and information in the early modern era.

You’ve taken us through the early modern era – please take us through Burke’s second volume.

In volume two Burke discusses the rise of the notion of research, which was fostered by universities starting in the 19th century but also by governments which funded large-scale projects. This growth led to the formation of many separate disciplines that became increasingly professionalized and to new institutions formed by governments, such as intelligence agencies and think-tanks. Burke talks about how people in various institutions gathered, classified, deciphered, evaluated, corrected and disseminated knowledge, and how information could be used for policy purposes or not, and how information was hidden, lost, and destroyed – intentionally and not. He offers an overview of the tremendous complexity of factors governing the creation, dissemination and use of knowledge in the modern period.

Burke surveys the intellectual history of the history of knowledge, from Montesquieu to Michel Foucault, in the first chapter of his first book. Can you please brief us on the theoretical underpinnings of the history of information?

Cultural history is the kind of history with which most of the authors I’m talking about identify themselves. Intellectual history has traditionally focused on major thinkers. By contrast the big moments in cultural history and the history of information in particular are often seemingly small developments, such as the emergence of indexing of various kinds, or of reference books – practices that often aren’t identified with big names or even with any names at all. One of the mantras of cultural history is to emphasise actors’ categories. We try to pay close attention to what the people we study thought they were doing and what habits of information management they used – if they didn’t think about it in our terms, how did they think about it?

How government uses information is the subject of Jacob Soll’s “The Information Master.” Please tell us about this book.

Jake Soll’s work is focused on the information management system set up by Louis XIV’s chief minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in late 17th century France. Soll studies Colbert’s accumulation of archival documents and manuscripts, and how Colbert managed the paperwork of an increasing bureaucracy, as well as the royal library passed down to him by the previous chief minister Jules Mazarin.

Colbert integrated multiple kinds of information – manuscripts, letters and books. He created this trove to serve the interests of the state. So when Louis XIV wanted to take possession of a city on France’s northern border, for example, he could ask Colbert to find medieval documentation or precedents that supported the monarch’s claim to the piece of territory he coveted. It was a secret information system for the use of the king yet it was elaborate and well maintained and integrated books with archival material. This grand information system was a great innovation but when Colbert died no one took up the challenge of maintaining and perpetuating it. Information systems can be fragile that way.

One of Soll’s most interesting points is how much movement there was between different areas of information management. He attributes Colbert’s aptitude for information management to his mercantile background. Merchants used bookkeeping to keep their accounts in order. Colbert drew on his background in mercantile note-taking but also hired scholars trained by Maurist historians, members of a French Benedictine order, who were expert at managing libraries and medieval manuscripts. So Colbert drew on both mercantile and scholarly traditions of note-taking to help him devise his information management system.

Soll was recently honored with a MacArthur Fellowship. How has he pioneered new inquiries? Is this area a fertile field for the history of knowledge?

History develops as a discipline by asking new questions of sources that were well known and by drawing attention to new sources. Soll does both of those things. Historians have long used archives – since the early modern period, in fact – but they have mostly worried about what they can get from the archives rather than about how archives were formed, maintained, classified and made available. But Soll’s work is part of a new kind of history that focuses on how the archives were consciously formed as a source of argumentation for state action. Early modern archiving was very sophisticated and also respectful of the sources. Although they tightly controlled access to the archives, early modern archivists kept all kinds of potentially incriminating documents that they didn’t tamper with or destroy. So these early archives are astounding troves of history.

I hope the history of archives gets a lot more attention. Jacob Soll is doing cutting-edge work in this area. Another colleague, Randolph Head, is working on a comparative history of archives in early modern Europe that promises to show us how church archives, state archives, family archives and commercial archives all developed techniques to deal with similar problems.

Let’s dig into the history of books by talking about your next choice, “The History of Reading in the West,” a collection of essays edited by Italian historian Guglielmo Cavallo and French historian Roger Chartier.

This is a landmark book in the history of reading. In the voices of many different scholars, it offers an excellent introduction to the complexities of trying to understand reading. The history of reading is an offshoot of the history of the book. It’s a field that’s been getting a lot of attention since the 1980s. These historians are trying to uncover who read what when, in what settings, for what purposes, and with what effects. In some contexts people read aloud, in groups, but of course reading often happened in private and silently. However we read, what we retain from it is a personal mental process which is very hard for the historian to track.

The essays in this volume span a broad period, from antiquity to the present, although the various forms of e-book have developed tremendously since this volume was published. It focuses on Europe, including European Jews, and emphasizes that reading is context dependent. We know from our own personal experience today that we read different texts in different ways. We also can’t assume that our ways of reading translate seamlessly to different contexts in the past.

“Reading” covers a wide range of practices. Medieval scholasticism, for example, favored a ponderous kind of reading of difficult Latin texts done by a few qualified scholars with pen in hand to comment on them. This kind of reading typically took place in a library or study with access to many other learned books. Novel reading was very different when it developed, especially in the 18th century – novels were viewed as engrossing and escapist entertainment, which was typically enjoyed in a nice comfy chair. Interestingly, this kind of reading, which we try to encourage in our children today, worried people in the 18th century. Wouldn’t girls especially get carried away by flights of fancy? People thought it important to control reading. For instance, it was considered better to have girls read in a circulating library since a public setting imposed limits on how far they could get carried away. So some of the fears parents have today about kids playing video games used to apply to reading.

Hearing about the history of reading has me wondering: How do historians approach the archaeology of orally transmitted information?

From antiquity through the early modern period orality played a huge role in the dissemination of information. Town criers communicated news; peasants might gather at their master’s house to hear him read a chivalric story. Oral experience was a crucial way to access information and still is, of course, today. Recording plays a key role in saving orality, but that technology began only in the late 19th century. The way that we recover orality from before then is through written traces.

When all we have as historians are written records, we can get clues about oral events through notes taken while listening, for example, to a sermon or a lecture or a play. Taking notes during sermons started in the Middle Ages. The work of a great sermonist like Bernard of Clairvaux survived because he would plant a secretary in the audience to take notes while he preached. Bernard would finalize his sermon based on these notes and release it for “publication” by copying. We also have books that purport to record the table talk or notable conversation of people who were considered important in their day, like Martin Luther or Samuel Johnson. Written traces of oral experiences of these kinds can help us understand oral experience, but of course the bulk of oral experience is lost beyond recovery.

This collection explicitly confines itself to the West. I know that your area of expertise is early modern Europe. I still wanted to ask whether the history of information is unduly weighted towards the West and whether the history of information in the East is as robust a field of study?

The history of information is fast becoming a global field of study. In the history of pre-modern reference works lots of fascinating work is being done on cultures with a long tradition of textual accumulation, like China and the Islamic world, for example. The history of archives has in many cases been pioneered by work on colonial archives, from Spanish America to 19th century India. The works I’ve described have a strong European focus, because of my own area of expertise, but the questions that the history of information is asking can be posed about every culture. I recommend the recent “conversation” in the American Historical Review on “historical perspectives on the circulation of information” which shows how a broad range of historians are thinking about the history of information on a global scale. A Google search will turn it up for you.

Next, you recommend “Cartographies of Time” by University of Oregon intellectual historian Daniel Rosenberg and Princeton professor Anthony Grafton. Tell us about it.

This is a beautiful book, wonderfully illustrated with a plethora of examples of how historical time has been visualized across a broad chronological span. The notion of visually representing the passage of time dates back to antiquity. The chapter on Eusebius – how in the fourth century he used tables to match up the biblical account of time with ancient history – is fascinating. In the Middle Ages genealogies were often displayed on parchment scrolls, using variations on the tree theme. So there is a tremendously long tradition of tabular representations of time.

But the timeline as we think of it owes a lot to the 18th century and to Joseph Priestley, the chemist. Priestley made a biographical chart in 1765 using a bar to indicate the life spans of some 2,000 famous people from antiquity to his own time. Nineteenth-century charts were incredibly detailed and colorful; they were feats of printing in addition to being feats of knowledge organization. Timelines were used to illustrate change over time but also the simultaneity and overlap of past events.

In recent times, with the increasing specialization of the academy and the application of new technologies, a variety of visual representations of information have exploded – from the bar graph to animated lectures available via Vimeo. How can we wrap our heads around the meaning of this explosion of graphic and multimedia knowledge transmission?

Computer technologies have made homemade visualizations possible. In the old days, printers controlled the creation of charts that could easily be disseminated. The charts were expensive and time intensive to produce so there was a tremendous bottleneck at the production level. Now we have all these tools at our fingertips. We can experiment with visual representations of knowledge and share them with others. But as the example of Eusebius shows, visual representations of knowledge have been around a long time. Medieval manuscripts had images to help people recognize where they were in a work and remember its contents. Although visualizations may facilitate new insights and make us aware of new connections in a new way, it’s worth remembering that visualization has been around a long time.

Card catalogs is the subject explored in your final choice, German historian Markus Krajewski’s “Paper Machines.”

“Paper Machines” is a really fun book that’s just been translated into English. It explores the development of the movable slip as a tool of information management. In the 16th century a Swiss bibliographer named Conrad Gesner first recommended slips as a method for indexing books. He recommended collecting the material to index on separate slips, some actually cut out of books and others handwritten. The slips would be interfiled in alphabetical order, using a temporary glue (for which he provided a recipe) so they could be kept in place and moved around. When all the slips were properly alphabetized, they could be glued in place permanently on sheets and the index was done. Gesner’s is the first documented description of how to use slips.

Why are slips so important to the history of information?

Slips were valuable because they are mobile, but the mobility also posed the danger that wind or a mischievous cat would cause slips to become out of order and you’d end up with chaos. In the 17th century a special piece of furniture was devised called a “literary closet” that featured hooks associated with subject headings on to which you could stick your slips. The hooks would keep the slips from blowing away but you could still move a slip from one hook to another to reorder the material. Problem solved, except that this literary closet was an expensive piece of office furniture and did not have a lot of impact. It took until the late 18th century for library catalogs to use mobile slips as a permanent way of storing material. The movable card catalog had a long career after that.

You have also written on the history of information management. Please tell us about “Too Much to Know.”

My book focuses on what I call reference books, even though that’s a 19th century term. What I mean is large books meant to be consulted rather than read through that generally came with finding devices, an alphabetical index or charts that map out the organization of the book in a diagram fashion. I was especially interested in books printed from roughly 1500 to 1700. I focused only on Latin reference books, which were the biggest ones, which posed the most challenging problems of information management.

Reference books were a response to the complaint that there were too many books. These collections of examples and anecdotes and sententious sayings would be useful for a preacher to cite in a sermon, for students and teachers to use in their writing, and for politicians and rulers who wanted quick access to examples from the past that could guide their decisions and be used in their arguments. Printed reference books offered ready-made selections from books that people didn’t have time to read themselves – they excerpted religious texts, ancient texts, and even some famous recent authors like Petrarch and Boccaccio. Even though they were big and expensive these reference books were quite steady sellers – early modern readers clearly thought they were useful.

Printed reference books drew on medieval methods of information organization. For example, using page layout and section breaks and alphabetization in the text or in the indexes. Printing helped spread familiarity with consultation reading to new audiences. In early printed books, indexes came with instructions on how to use them but by 1650 these were generally no longer necessary.

You underscore that information overload is not unique to the Internet age. As a historian of knowledge, do you have any advice for how to deal with the digital deluge?

In my research I was struck by the continuities between the methods deployed by the makers of early modern reference books and what I do today. I recommend note-taking as a way of building a personal treasure trove of information one gathers from Internet surfing or reading. For years and years I’ve simply used word documents to create notes and to draw up thematic and bibliographical indexes to those notes. Having such a store of materials, it would require a lot of back cataloging for me to adopt a new organizational system and software. That’s how I’ve managed so far, but the advice of an early modern pedagogue (the Jesuit Jeremias Drexel) is still relevant when it comes to note-taking: Use whatever system works for you, as long as you take notes!

But I want to end with a plug for the brain. I don’t think one can digitize everything. Human memory and judgement have always played a central role in the history of information and I expect they will continue to be crucial to our ability to do creative work that builds on the massive accumulation of information that we have.

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