Sunday, November 28, 2010

Information Overload -- possible ways forward

The Boston Globe had an article today, "Information Overload, the early years," by Ann Blair. I have to say I began to read it with some reluctance. We have all seen a number of articles along similar lines, where they go back in history and pull up fascinating quotes that prove that Erasmus was disheartened by the sudden plethora of books, and thought it was all just too much. This article does exactly that, of course, showing that when the printing press emerged, yes indeedy, people began to feel swamped in books. Ms. Blair also provides the stunning statistics about how much data is being produced each year, along with quotes from Nicholas Carr worrying (as I do, in fact) that we are changing the way we read.

But the article goes beyond the usual run of the mill descriptions of how they felt the same kind of overload we do. Blair does a wonderful job of noticing that after the first shock of the outpouring of publishing, that various players began devising methods to deal with the wash of data. This is fascinating and gives us actual helpful pointers about how to cope now. I did not know, for instance, that this was the moment when bibliographies, indexes and tables of contents really developed and blossomed. Reference books of all types began to be invented under the pressure of "too many books to read." Collections of quotations, called "florilegia" originally came out. Then selecting, collecting and digesting all kinds of information emerged. I did not realize that this was when note-taking became a skill, or that it had to be taught. And I was fascinated to learn that the roots of library card catalogs are here, at this point in history:

Compilers cut and pasted, very literally, with scissors and glue, from manuscript notes they had already taken — or, even more efficiently, by exploiting a new, cheap source of printed information: older editions of books. These slips were cut from a full page and soon glued onto a new sheet, but in the mid-17th century for the first time one scholar advocated using the slips themselves as an information-storage system. Crucial to this method was a specially designed piece of furniture: a note closet comprising slats studded with hooks on which the slips could be stored and labeled. Probably only a handful of such closets were built, but the slip — and the idea of the filing system — had a long career ahead. In the 18th century the political theorist Montesquieu took notes on the backs of playing cards, which were blank in those days. His younger contemporary Carl Linnaeus made his own slips for recording the characteristics of plants, from which he created a taxonomic system that we still use today. The slips, ordered and sorted, would eventually inspire both the index card and the library card catalog.
There were also some failed experiments. There was a sort of "family tree" design of hierarchies and brackets to show the contents and their relationships. There were various efforts to use squiggles and indentations and other signals to show the subcategories of topics before the indented alphabetical indexes and outline-format tables of contents that we see today. This is important to understand. None of the forms we use today were pre-determined, and there had to be experiments to discover what would work the best. There had to be trial and error to find the best methods of dealing with that original information overload, from Johann Gutenberg's printing press. And that means we can and must do the same thing now. In fact, it is happening already, in ways I am not sure we can recognize yet. But it is happening all the same. We are already beginning to cope and adjust. Improved search engines, better search techniques, more ruthless culling of results. I suppose the "cloud tags" are another example of a technique of dealing with labeling.

Librarians' skills are more useful than ever in sorting information. I suspect we will have useful things to offer in the development of these new tools and techniques.

The image is of the library at the University of Leyden from the Globe article and is credited to Getty Archives. The caption in the print edition said the image was from 1610. I hope the image is clear enough for you to see the books chained to the shelves, and the reading racks below the shelf. There are 2 women visiting the library as well as two dogs, which I hope was not an equivalent visit. The books are shelved by topic, with, if you can read the labels along the top of the shelves, "Iuris Consultis," "Medici," "Historici," and other topics listed. Wonderful image with globes having adorable little individual covers, and set up high on shelf tops when not in use. You can see the readers stood at the shelves to read the books, resting their foot on a foot rail, to rest their backs. The table is not for sitting to read, but to set the globes on for measuring distance.

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