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"Of Making Books There Is No End!"

Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. 
By Ann M. Blair
Yale University Press, 2010.


Mark F. Smith is a senior policy analyst-higher education in NEA’s Office of Higher Education, where he advances the policy goals of the Association and its affiliates on behalf of college university faculty and staff. Prior to joining NEA, he served as director of government relations at the American Association of University Professors. Smith holds a BA in history and political science from the University of Wisconsin, and an MA in government from Johns Hopkins University. He is a member of the American Historical Association and the American Political Association.

Would-be reformers constantly argue the need for change and innovation in higher education policy.  The information explosion available through the Internet and digital technology has transformed teaching and scholarship, and therefore requires the adoption of new policy.  In her study of how earlier generations of scholars dealt with explosions of information in their times, Ann Blair notes that recent technological changes have highlighted “the tremendous investment of human labor in tasks that were soon made obsolete by computers.”  For example, Blair cites the transformation of the indexing of Bartlett Quotations which once “took 20 people six months to complete, while the computerized indexing of the current edition takes a computer three hours to compile—down from 19,200 hours of labor in the 19th century” (266). 

With this kind of observation, offered at the conclusion of Blair’s valuable study Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, the author provides an unusually long view of the changes we face today. More importantly, she offers strategies for coping with the threats of information overload by looking at how earlier scholars have coped with this issue. 

From ancient times onward, scholars have relied on the “four S’s of test management,” Blair advises.  And, even now, “we too store, sort, select, and summarize information, but …we rely not only on human memory, manuscript, and print, as in earlier centuries, but also on computer chips, search functions, data mining, and Wikipedia, along with other electronic techniques” (3). 

The invention of writing was an early form of information management, Blair contends, and she cites Plato’s critique of writing as “an early example of the ambivalence that has often accompanied the adoption of a new technology.” Worried, Plato said that written words escaped the writer’s control and “were readily misunderstood and misused than words spoken to an interlocutor” a sentiment echoed by many modern critics of online education, who believe that online delivery deprives students of the richness of intellectual interchange (14).  Blair attributes “the Renaissance experience [of] information overload on a hitherto unprecedented scale” to “the discovery of new worlds, the recovery of ancient texts, and the proliferation of printed books” (11).  The heart of the book concentrates on major strategies of coping with the explosion of information in post-Renaissance Europe:  note taking, reference genres, finding devices such as indexes, and compilations of manuscripts. 

Even before the Renaissance the phenomenon of information explosion affected other cultures. In the 14th century, the Islamic father of historical sociology, Ibn Khaldūn complained about the “‘great number of scholarly books’ available in every field that could not be read even in a lifetime.”  He also claimed there was “an increased reliance on textbooks, which was detrimental to scholarship and to the acquisition of good study habits for students” (27). And such complaints went back further, to biblical times.  Ecclesiastes 12:12 contains the verse “Of making books there is no end!” (15).

An unexpectedly fascinating chapter on the art of note taking discusses both new attitudes toward note taking—we see our notes as less temporary and more permanent repositories of information—and the increased availability of paper.  A 17th century scholar, Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc is identified as “a nobleman of Aix-en-Provence and an abundant note taker though he published virtually nothing” (86). A fellow scholar “reported that Peiresc always read with pen in hand and ‘had Scribes in readiness [to] have any thing transcribed.’ ‘For he could never endure that the least invention or observation of any man should be lost, being alwayes in hopes that either himself, or some other, would be advantaged thereby.’  Therefore, ‘he wrote things down in his memorials because he then judged they were out of danger of being forgotten’” (87). Today, Peiresc would undoubtedly employ multiple back-up systems and frequent use of the save button.

Note taking became large-scale stockpiling of information and led to the need for “greater attention to organization and finding devices” (61).  This need became more pronounced with the growth in printed compilations, which became steady sellers in early modern times.  Such devices as lists of authorities and headings, sometimes alphabetized, became commonplace.  A variety of reference genres developed as fundamental texts, yet even in early modern times such texts got very little respect. “[F]ew users, whether in early modern Europe or today, acknowledge their use of reference books by citing them” (241).  The 15th century scholar Joseph Scaliger denied that he used even a dictionary” but, “when it was auctioned in 1609” his “impressive library included a fine collection of reference books: a dozen dictionaries and linguistic commentaries” (245).  A similar, and not unjustified, attitude expresses itself today in many faculty forbidding students from using Internet sources in research papers.

While manuscript compilations became more prevalent in early modern times, such works often date back earlier.  In China, both the Northern Song dynasty in the 10th century and the early Ming dynasty in the 15th commissioned large-scale compilations of manuscripts.  In the 18th century the Qianlong emperor commissioned the Siku Quanshu, for more than 200 years the largest compilation of information in history. “At 800 million words it has been only recently surpassed by the English Wikipedia (over one billion words as of June 2010), but in the 18th century it far surpassed the 40 million words in the 15th edition of the Encylopedia Britannica” (30).

Even with its great size (79,000 chapters in 36,000 volumes and was produced in seven manuscript copies between 1773 and 1782), the Siku Quanshu had certain omissions.  The Emperor “instructed his officials to destroy anti-Manchu works at the same time as they gathered manuscripts and books from the many libraries they examined for inclusion in the compilation” (29).  Other problems with suppression of information occurred when “vast numbers of manuscripts were destroyed (most spectacularly during the dissolution of the monasteries in England) and used for the parchment on which they were written, as jar covers, wall papering, or bindings for printed books” (225-6). While such politically motivated suppression of knowledge seem remote today, the burning of books in 1930s Germany, destruction of research in 1960s China, and the removal of government information from libraries and websites during the Bush administration remind us that they still bear watching. 

Despite acknowledging what she calls a “declining narrative from the heights of great learning to an increasing reliance on shortcuts and substitutes,” Blair leans to “an optimistic stance” with confidence “that new research tools and techniques can both enhance our ability to do thoughtful scholarly work and widen access to learning for broader audiences.” She notes that the decline narrative “continues to appeal today, often fueled by general anxieties rather than specific changes” (267).  While observing that “technology still has its limits,” human memory and judgment remain essential. In conclusion, Blair credits early modern scholars with providing still relevant intellectual models by devising “innovative methods of managing textual information in an era of exploding publications to which our own methods of reading and processing information are indebted” (268).