Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Perhaps of interest

The "information flood" has a longer history than we suppose.
By Alan Jacobs | posted 08/13/07

Books & Culture

James O'Donnell, in his thoughtful book Avatars of the Word (1998)—there's a supplementary website here,—argues that until fairly recently the role of the university professor was to be "the supreme local authority" on his or her subject. But then university libraries started getting larger, and the most learned professors started writing more books, books with which those libraries could be stocked. (Whether the increasing numbers of books or the libraries' cravings for them came first, I cannot say.) In England especially the late 19th century saw the creation of vast reference projects—the two most famous of them being the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of National Biography—which would do much to make great erudition available throughout the English-speaking world.

Later came additional technologies that were especially important for newer academic libraries, many of which were in North America: microfilm and microfiche allowed such schools to provide their patrons with old newspapers, magazines, and books that they never could have found paper copies of. More recently came scanning and digitizing: the magnificent high-resolution images of old and rare books from Octavo, for instance; the vast accumulation of plain-text files of public-domain texts from Project Gutenberg; specialized collections of books in various formats, like the Christian Classics Ethereal Library; and so on. Add to this the increasingly wide online availability of the best scholarly articles—though at a price—from Project Muse and JSTOR, and it becomes increasingly difficult to think of the professor, supreme local authority though he or she may be, as the best possible authority.

In this context, O'Donnell thinks, who needs professors to provide information? Rather, "the real roles of the professor in an information-rich world will be … to advise, guide, and encourage students wading through the deep waters of the information flood." And O'Donnell is moved to think in this way largely because, as a scholar of the late classical world, he has worked primarily on thinkers whose problem was a scarcity of information, not an overabundance. Much of O'Donnell's work has been on Augustine, a man who, as O'Donnell's rival biographer Peter Brown has noted, was "steeped too long in too few books." And his first book was about Cassiodorus—you can get the full text of the book on O'Donnell's homepage—a man who devoted the latter part of his life to collecting what we would think of as a very small monastic library and teaching monks how to use it.

So for O'Donnell the contrast between the current scene and the world of his own scholarly expertise could scarcely be greater. But there are other scholars who remind us that we are not the first to wrestle with the problem of "information overload"—and there may be lessons for us in how some of our predecessors dealt with this issue. Perhaps the most interesting of those scholars is Ann Blair of Harvard, who is working on what promises to be a fascinating book about information overload in the 16th century—the early days of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation. (You can find a copy of a preliminary article on the subject here: scroll about halfway down or search for the name "Blair.")

Blair shows that many scholars, starting in the 16th century and continuing for another hundred and fifty years or so, were—how shall I put it?—freaked out by the sudden onslaught of texts. In the 17th century one French scholar cried out, "We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire." That is, "unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not."

Blair shows that such alarm was quite common, and indeed can be found in various periods going back to the high Middle Ages. For instance, in the 13th century we hear from Vincent of Beauvais: "Since the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory do not allow all things which are written to be equally retained in the mind, I decided to reduce in one volume in a compendium and in summary order some flowers selected according to my talents from all the authors I was able to read." A kind of Culture's Greatest Hits. But after the invention of the printing press books had multiplied so greatly that a project like Vincent's would have been self-evidently absurd.

So what did those poor deluged people do? Well, they adopted several strategies. First, they practiced various ways of marking important passages in books: with special symbols, with slips of paper, and so on. Then they came up with various ways of organizing books: there were now so many that figuring out how to arrange them became quite a puzzle, so the learned began debates on this subject that would culminate in the creation of the great Dewey Decimal Classification.

But there was also the most fundamental question of all: how to read. One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon—it comes from his essay "Of Studies"—concerns the reading of books: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention." This is usually taken as a wise or sententious general comment about the worthiness of various texts, but Ann Blair shows that Bacon was making a very practical recommendation to people who were overwhelmed by the availability of books and couldn't imagine how they were going to read them all. Bacon tells such worried folks that they can't read them all, and so should develop strategies of discernment that enable them to make wise decisions about how to invest their time.

Blair also points out that certain enterprising scholars recognized that this information overload created a market for reference works and books that claimed to summarize important texts—We read the books so you don't have to!—or promised to teach techniques for the rapid assimilation of knowledge. But serious scholars like Meric Casaubon—son of the famous Isaac Casaubon—denounced the search for "a shorter way" to learning, insisting that "the best method to learning … is indefatigable (soe farr as the bodie will beare) industrie, and assiduitie, in reading good authors, such as have had the approbation of all learned ages." No shortcuts!

The correspondences to the present day are pretty obvious—Casaubon might be a professor today warning students against Wikipedia—but perhaps the application of lessons is not so easy. The scholars of the 16th and seventeenth centuries were resourceful indeed as they struggled to cope with the influx of books, pamphlets, broadsides, and so on; but their strategies are tailored to the particular technology of the book, and may not be directly applicable to our current problem of managing not just a torrent of books, but a far greater torrent of digital texts.

We are probably at the beginning of our attempts to manage our own information overload. For instance, though many people today—doctors and other scientists in particular—do much of their reading in PDF files, PDF readers that allow annotation are quite new and highly imperfect. And the habit of tagging digital data, while growing, is also still new. Tags are incredibly useful: services like the free, for instance, allow you to keep your browser bookmarks online, tag them, share them with other people, and see bookmarks that others have tagged similarly. Another web-based service, Stikkit—also free, at least at the moment—provides a free-form repository for almost any kind of data and encourages you tag that data for retrieval later.

Those of us who use Macs—I'm sure there are Windows equivalents—now can choose from among several applications that collect data in a range of formats and feature tagging or something similar: Steven Johnson has written a vigorous commendation [restricted content] of DevonThink, a fine application, though I prefer the more streamlined Yojimbo. Frankly, I don't know what I would do without Yojimbo: I keep my whole brain in it, and relate everything to everything else with tags. And modern operating systems are increasingly building in tagging functions at the system-wide level.

Tagging is coming to replace the "folder" metaphor that has dominated personal computing for twenty years because, while a file can only be in one folder, the same file can be given as many tags as its owner wants, and so can be seen in relation to several different sets of other files. It's a great advance in organizing information. But it's just one step towards coping with a flow of data that can only get bigger. James O'Donnell is absolutely correct when he says that the role of the teacher will be, increasingly, to manage this flow and teach others to manage it—that is, to teach the kind of discernment that Bacon counsels, so that we and our students will better understand what is but to be tasted, and what by contrast should be read wholly, with diligence and attention. But surely this is not just a task for educators and their pupils. In Bacon's time, and in Meric Casaubon's, literacy was still rare, and those who had to cope with books were few. Now information overload is everyone's problem.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois; his Bad to the Bone: an Exemplary History of Original Sin (HarperOne) will appear in Spring 2008. His Tumblelog is here.

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