'Too Much to Know'

Author discusses new book on the long history of information overload. (This is information you very much need.)

March 17, 2011

Don't ask whether I checked Twitter or The New York Times home page while composing this article, and I won't ask how many tabs are currently open in your browser window, or whether you have a long list of journal articles saved to "read later" on your Kindle. Complaints of information overload are ubiquitous these days -- as are the articles debating what it all means. And academics may rightfully claim to feel doubly overwhelmed, assuming they're attempting to keep up with the burgeoning scholarly output in their own disciplines as well as dodging the sticky and ever-proliferating tentacles of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and all the rest.

But as modern as the problem may seem, information overload wasn't born in the dorm rooms of Larry Page and Sergey Brin (let alone Mark Zuckerberg). In fact, says Ann M. Blair, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Harvard University, the idea that more textual information exists than could possible be useful or manageable predates not only Project Gutenberg, but the printing press itself. In her new book, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Yale University Press), Blair cites sources as far back as Seneca -- "the abundance of books is distraction" -- to show that the notion dates to antiquity.

While the book's context is broad, Blair's primary focus is on the information management strategies employed by scholars in early modern Europe, whose enthusiasm for and anxiety about textual overabundance may sound surprisingly familiar all these hundreds of years (and hundreds of millions of Google searches) later. Inside Higher Ed conducted an e-mail interview with Blair to find out more about information management in the Renaissance and today.

Q: You write that "the basic methods [of information management] we deploy are largely similar to those devised centuries ago in early reference books" -- a statement that seems surprising, given all the systems and programs that exist for managing information in the Internet age. What are the enduring strategies of information management, and how have they evolved over time?

A: Obviously the tools and media used for managing information have varied widely across time and space, but at root managing textual information is about selecting or summarizing items of interest, and storing and sorting them in a way that makes them retrievable at a later date and possibly by other people. We can see these techniques deployed by scholars in classical antiquity using papyrus scrolls, in the middle ages on parchment manuscripts and in early modern Europe, using paper to manage information both in manuscript and in print. Today we can rely on computers to perform all these functions (from automated selection and summary programs to tagging and storage), but the results are probably most effective when they are guided by our own judgment in choosing what to save and under what headings, just as generations of readers have before us, using the brain as the longest-running tool of information management.

Q: Expressions of anxiety about the impact of textual abundance "can be traced in any number of times and places" throughout history. What have been some of the most predominant concerns -- and do you see reiterations of them today, in academe or beyond?

A: The earliest concerns about overabundance were moral in character: in the complaints of Ecclesiastes or Seneca too many books meant distraction from the attentive study of the few good texts that could offer genuine edification. Humanist pedagogues worried about their students not reading texts through, but reading selectively, often thanks to an alphabetical index. Today, similarly, we worry about our ability to focus becoming lost amid so many forms of communication vying for our attention. In the 16th century scholars were also worried about not finding what they were looking for among so many books. Many books seemed useless or deleterious, and finding the useful ones was time-consuming and not always successful. Today we have powerful and helpfully redundant search tools and yet we too often do not find what we’d like to and we also need to remember that we might be missing something, especially since not the Web does not contain all the information that might be valuable to us.

Q: These days, we tend to attribute the excess of textual information to the Internet and all things digital, but you emphasize that "the perception of and complaints about overload are not unique to our period." Do you see the proliferation of information -- and the consequences thereof -- in our own era as unique, or simply as part of a pattern dating back centuries or longer?

A: The overload we experience today is unique in a number of ways. The sheer scale of accumulation of digital materials is of course unprecedented, and the accumulation is highly visible: everyone with the ability to use the Internet can experience getting hundreds of thousands of hits on a Google search and having to make choices from more options than can be investigated carefully. In earlier periods complaints about overload stemmed from the ranks of the educated and those with access to books and manuscripts. The potential to gather more information than we can comfortably manage has probably been around since writing first allowed for the accumulation of more material than could be remembered, but overload has not been a universal experience. In many times and places scholars have experienced a dearth of books rather than overload. In ancient and medieval contexts, the learned circles in which authors articulated fears about overload were often quite small. Starting in the 15th century printing helped to spread literacy and access to books in early modern Europe, so that by the 18th century a broader readership appreciated the problem of overload and the solutions of the day: newspapers and periodicals that printed reviews and excerpts from books, and encyclopedic genres that summarized all those books you wouldn’t have time to read yourself.

Q: You note that "among those reflecting on current and future developments [in the management of textual information], the doomsayers on the one hand and the info-boosters on the other often seem the loudest voices" -- an observation not likely to be disputed by anyone who follows the news. How has your research informed your perspective on these developments, and how would you describe your attitude toward them?

A: A historian combines studying the past with living in the present. There is no doubt that current concerns about information overload shaped my research into the methods of working of early modern scholars. Conversely, because of my historical interests I am conscious of the long history of the tropes that are current today among both the “Never-Betters” and the “Better-Nevers” (to borrow some terms coined in a Feb 14 New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik). The first proclaim that a new order is upon us which will solve all our problems (echoing Francis Bacon in the early 17th century); the latter fear on the contrary that civilization is declining faster than ever before -- a refrain common to many early modern scholars. In the case of information management a historical perspective helps me view both strands with skeptical remove. History certainly offers no clear predictions of the future, but I tend to think that we will manage much as we have in the past, creating problems for ourselves but hopefully also enough solutions to carry on.

Q: In the book's epilogue, you mention your concern "about our ability to revisit old sources left in obscurity for a generation or more," since "[a]s we turn to storing most of our data on electronic media, we risk eliminating from the chain of transmission anything that is not regularly updated onto new media." Do you intend for your book to raise questions or concerns about digital preservation? What perspective do you hope it might impart to readers?

A: Digital preservation raises many serious and unresolved problems. For example, concerning published materials, who will store and maintain them and access to them? At whose expense? I am delighted with recent discussions for creating a National Digital Library in the U.S. which could coordinate with the national digital libraries already in formation in other countries, notably in Europe. But this will no doubt be a long ongoing process rather than a rapid achievement. As a historian I am also concerned about the preservation of materials that are not published, which may not always be in active use in the near future and yet which historians will want to use in a later future. This includes archives of all kinds -- generated by government at all levels, but also by corporations and organizations, and individuals. Many of the sources I used in researching my book, including, for example, notebooks kept by scholars ca. 1600, have remained dormant in library collections for over 400 years, yet they are perfectly accessible as ink (and glue) on paper, so that language and handwriting present the only minor remaining obstacles. How can we retain access to digital materials stored on software and hardware that will soon be obsolete but which won’t seem worth the constant maintenance required to keep them current? These are some of the problems we have created for ourselves, and I am heartened that many excellent individuals and organizations are thinking hard about solutions for archiving the born-digital materials that we are generating, inevitably, in ever-greater abundance.

Q: What strategies do you use to manage information overload in your own life -- as a scholar and otherwise? (And has your research had any impact on how you handle it?)

A: I am an abundant note-taker. I keep a paper agenda and leave notes to myself and others at home. In my research and teaching I take notes on index cards and in notebooks during conversations and lectures, the most useful of which I transcribe into computer files. I take all my reading notes on computer, from reading rare and recent books on paper, and increasingly journal articles and books in electronic forms. I keep my notes in Word files and keep track of them in files that record what I have read and where the corresponding notes are stored, and what themes and topics those notes address. I have named the latter files “places” because they resemble the commonplace books sorted under thematic headings advocated by humanist pedagogues. I don’t like to rely on general searches of my hard drive (though I resort to them sometimes), because typos and the use of different terms for the same idea, not to mention software glitches, can easily overlook an item I am looking for. In addition to these written and electronic aids, I know that my memory remains a crucial player in lecturing and teaching, in analyzing and writing, so I try to keep the most important points for my current work in mind as well as in other media.


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