From Ann Blair’s “Information Overload, Then and Now” (The Chronicle):
Complaints about "too many books" echo across the centuries, from when books were papyrus rolls, parchment manuscripts, or hand printed. …
Early negative responses include Ecclesiastes 12:12 ("Of making books there is no end," probably from the fourth or third century BC) and Seneca's "distringit librorum multitudo" ("the abundance of books is distraction," first century AD). But we also find enthusiasm for accumulation—of papyri at the Library of Alexandria (founded in the early third century BC) or of the 20,000 "facts" that Pliny the Elder accumulated in Historia naturalis (completed in AD 77). Though we no longer care especially about ancient precedent, we hear the same doom and praise today.
Blair discusses the long history of text management practices—reusable wax tablets, florilegia, alphabetical indices, text divisions, commonplaces, bibliographies, compendia, periodicals, books reviews, dictionaries, and encyclopedias—and wonders what is at risk as academic scholarship moves to electronic media. She identifies three areas of concern:
- Storing: “computers preserve only what has been upgraded to match their ever-changing specifications. Documents without anyone interested in using them and upgrading them to new platforms may become inaccessible.”
- Sorting: “search engines can track the keywords chosen by individual users and writers, but we still need library catalogers and indexers who can identify relevant category terms that do not appear explicitly in the text and who can group related topics under consistent subject headings.”
- Selecting and summarizing: “making and using shortcuts skillfully and responsibly requires judgment.”
we need to proceed carefully in the transition to electronic media, lest we lose crucial methods of working that rely on and foster thoughtful decision making. Like generations before us, we need all the tools for gathering and assessing information that we can muster—some inherited from the past, others new to the present. Many of our technologies will no doubt rapidly seem obsolete, but, we can hope, not human attention and judgment, which should continue to be the central components of thoughtful information management.