September 18, 2012

Blair, Ann. Too Much to Know?: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age. Yale University Press, 2010. Print.

Comprehensive description of information management from classical times forward, emphasis on early modern and modern Western work but some attempt to include Islamic and Chinese information practices. Offers modest critique of neo-Foucauldian arguments that modern knowledge systems or regimes are a major break with medieval or classical practices and epistemes. Covers notation, reference, cataloguing, collecting, but also philosophies and practices of reading and interpretation. Very attentive to material culture, a good bridge between history of the book and intellectual history more generally–does not see notation, reference or cataloguing as merely or primarily technological or material, but also as a product of distinctive cultures of use and ideas about the subjectivity of research and interpretation. Equally cautions against seeing note-taking and marginalia as only windows into selfhood or consciousness of readers. Argues that many older notational and reference practices remain embedded inside contemporaneous, digital-age practices.

Variety of practices is often astonishing, as is the vigorous range of arguments between practicioners about the purposes and utility of their method–very revealing to see the deep historicity of such arguments.

Chapter on compilation could be extremely provocative and interesting in any discussion of digital practices, “remix culture”, and so on.

“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 articulated a perception akin to overload and devised methods of information management that are still recognizable today.” p. 11

“During the early modern period, the boundaries between the tasks requiring judgment and those considered mechanical were fluid, and individuals made their own decisions about what to delegate to others. Some engaged in group note-taking and study with peers who were considered equals in judgment and ability…Across these variations, early modern scholars typically worked not alone but with others, adding further layers of complexity to the processes of heading choice and note management.” p. 112

“Large-scale collective projects (like the Pinakes or the biblical concordances of the thirteenth century) probably involved the pooling of notes by a group working together, though we know very little about the stages preceding the finished work. Less elaborately, the circulation of florilegia often involved, if one takes the prologues seriously, a decision by the original note-taker to share the results of his work with others in his order and beyond.” p. 116

“In the modern ‘inspired genius’ model of authorship, a text made of excerpts from other texts is considered the work of a compiler rather than an author and is considered inferior to an authored text because it involves little original composition. In contrast, in the postmodern conception of authorship the process of selecting is perceived to carry significant interpretative weight, so that the compiler might be rehabilitated as being on a par with the ‘author’. But the firmly entrenched negative connotations of compiling and the utilitarian nature of many compilations have deterred scholarly attention to compilation until recently.” p. 175