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Too Much to Know

Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age

Ann M. Blair
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Too Much to Know
    Book Description:

    The flood of information brought to us by advancing technology is often accompanied by a distressing sense of "information overload," yet this experience is not unique to modern times. In fact, says Ann M. Blair in this intriguing book, the invention of the printing press and the ensuing abundance of books provoked sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European scholars to register complaints very similar to our own. Blair examines methods of information management in ancient and medieval Europe as well as the Islamic world and China, then focuses particular attention on the organization, composition, and reception of Latin reference books in print in early modern Europe. She explores in detail the sophisticated and sometimes idiosyncratic techniques that scholars and readers developed in an era of new technology and exploding information.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16849-5
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Editorial Method
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    We describe ourselves as living in an information age as if this were something completely new. In fact, many of our current ways of thinking about and handling information descend from patterns of thought and practices that extend back for centuries. This book explores the history of one of the longest-running traditions of information management—the collection and arrangement of textual excerpts designed for consultation in what I call, as a convenient shorthand, “reference books.”¹ Large collections of textual material, consisting typically of quotations, examples, or bibliographical references, were used in many times and places as a way of facilitating...

  7. 1 Information Management in Comparative Perspective
    (pp. 11-61)

    Early modernists, including myself, have argued that the Renaissance experienced information overload on a hitherto unprecedented scale, drawing a parallel with our experience today. Historians have pointed especially to three main sources of information explosion in the Renaissance: the discovery of new worlds, the recovery of ancient texts, and the proliferation of printed books.¹ In this chapter, I seek to reine our understanding of the early modern information explosion in two principal ways. First, the experience of overload was not new or unique to Renaissance Europe. Even a brief nonspecialist inquiry turns up multiple premodern contexts in which the learned...

  8. 2 Note-Taking as Information Management
    (pp. 62-116)

    Printing helped make reference books bigger, more widely distributed at the time, and better preserved since. But the presence of printing cannot explain either the demand or the supply for these works. Why did compilers and authors generate so many large collections of quotations and textual material even before the commercial success of these genres was clearly established? Furthermore, why did these genres become so successful? Why were so many of the educated willing to buy such relatively expensive books? I have turned for some answers to a little-studied but pervasive element of context: practices of note-taking. These are closely...

  9. 3 Reference Genres and Their Finding Devices
    (pp. 117-172)

    The first new reference books to appear in print starting ca. 1500 were indebted to ancient and medieval sources and models, but they also initiated a period of new experimentation and explosive growth in methods of information management. Printed compilations were larger than their medieval counterparts and often grew larger still in successive editions, while remaining commercially viable; reference books were steady sellers despite their considerable size and expense and despite being accessible only to the Latin-literate.¹ The impressive size of many early modern reference books is a symptom of the same stockpiling mentality that motivated the large collections of...

  10. 4 Compilers, Their Motivations and Methods
    (pp. 173-229)

    Authors of reference books engage in the management of textual information on a scale beyond the norm in their historical context. To study their motivations and methods of working is illuminating on multiple counts. On one hand, ordinary notions and practices are often more visible in these works of large scope and lesser literary pretensions. On the other hand, the exceptional demands of the bulk of material and pressure of time could trigger extraordinary working methods and innovative intellectual justifications. In the early modern period, these ranged from cutting and pasting from printed books to make the manuscript for a...

  11. 5 The Impact of Early Printed Reference Books
    (pp. 230-264)

    Tracking the impact of reference books in early modern Europe is particularly difficult. These books were expensive and were often owned by institutions, so that we have few records of the individuals who actually used them. Reference books were also less fully annotated than other genres, in part because they belonged to libraries that discouraged users from annotating books, and probably in part due to the kinds of reading involved. When a reference book does contain annotations, these traces often flag a passage with underlining, marginal lines, or simple signs (a star or pointing finger) without giving us a sense...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 265-268)

    Many developments in information management and reference tools that are still crucial to our information culture followed the consolidation of the basic form of the modern encyclopedia in the eighteenth century. Historians have identified key developments in business and office management techniques in the decades from 1870 to 1910, including ideals of impersonal and controlled processing of information, new office techniques in copying and vertical filing, and new genres of writing, such as the memo.¹ Innovations in reference tools were also stimulated by the continued accumulation of publications, especially in fields where research involved extensive use of earlier literature. Chemistry,...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 269-320)
  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 321-380)
  15. Index
    (pp. 381-397)