BOOK AND SOFTWARE REVIEWS
Blair, Ann M. Too much to know: managing scholarly information before the Modern Age. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2010. xvi, 397 p. ISBN 978 0300112511. $45.00.
Ann M. Blair is a professor at the History Department of Harvard University. The book that I have just finished reading is definitely a work of a historian. So, why should it be reviewed for the Information Research? I had one very good reason for that - I liked it very much. There are some other reasons too: the title includes modern terminology of managing scholarly information and it deals with relevant knowledge organisation issues of information (or text) compression, representation, searching methods and technologies. I do not think it matters very much that this subject is explored in the context of scholarly work of 1500-1700, especially as the author herself keeps referring to modernity quite often in the text. I also found very interesting additional links to very modern phenomena. This is a healthy reminder that there is "nothing new under the sun", though the old thing comes and goes in different disguises.
Having written this paragraph, I was upset as it does not do justice to the enormous work done by the author and that extraordinary text that she has produced. I cannot go into the subtleties of historical research or assess the precision of the details, but the little knowledge of book and scholarly communication history that still resides in my memory from previous history oriented teaching in library and information science allows me to appreciate the work carried out in archives and rare book collections around the world, the care taken to select appropriate examples and illustrations, scholarly competence and language skills required for understanding the contexts and the texts themselves, knowledge of the studied objects, even if the terminology used is not always accurate from the point of view of modern information science researcher.
The conceptual approach and terminology used is outlined in the very first chapter Information management in comparative perspective. The following three chapters cover a variety of knowledge organization ways, devices, methods, technologies, motivations to conduct this huge work, and the conditions and environments in which it was done. Finally, the role of reference books in the scholarly culture of the studied period and their impact on the features of modern books is addressed in Chapter 5. The text is rich in facts, objects and names, and quotes; however, all these objects are held together by cultural contexts in which they are immersed. The author has presented substantial notes that are moved to the end of the book to allow the reader to concentrate on the text in hand. I always liked reading monographs on book history and never get bored with the historical details, but for the sake of this review it might be interesting to highlight some issues that relate directly to our most acute modern problems.
One of the most significant is the problem of information overload. Ann Blair argues that it is not a consequence of any technology or new discoveries, but rather of a "set of cultural attitudes that can be summed up as infolust or information obsession" (p. 11, 45). This set of attitudes can occur at any period in history (and did, as the author proves, already in Antiquity) and seems very relevant to our times. Different information organization tools and methods are not only carried into our times, but some solutions seem to overshadow our present worries. I have found a reference to a wonderful preservation strategy through file migration in antiquity and in the China imperial library by transmitting texts to new papyrus roles or bamboo strips to keep them longer than several hundred years (degeneration time) (p. 18, 28). The author deems discarding of notes and forgetting to be "crucial to effective information management", just as in modern records management and item selection for digitisation projects presumes.
There are many more interesting links to modernity in this rich monograph. Though I have no illusions that my students or many colleagues will appreciate the book enough to read it from cover to cover, I would recommend it to those who think that no academic discipline or professional area is complete without its history and simply enjoy historical monographs. From my point of view this is a piece of information management and scholarly communication as well as knowledge organization history, rather than book history, therefore, relevant for reviewing in Information Research.