039: Too Much to Know by Ann M. Blair

by Gerard


039.71094: Blair, Ann M. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. 366 pp. ISBN 978-0-300-11251-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 000: Computer science, information, and general works
  • 030: Encyclopedias and books of facts
  • 039: General encyclopedic works in other languages
  • 039.71: General encyclopedia works in Latin
  • +094: Europe

Today, the world doesn’t think too much on how information is stored for the future. We have encyclopedias and web depositories and information on every smartphone around the world for those who need info on a moment’s notice. A thousand year ago, getting and storing information was a much different task. Manuscript after manuscript had to be consulted, minute information gleaned from faraway sources to create each new volume. While it’s generally agreed upon that there were more books around than previously thought, information was still a rare thing. In the two centuries before the invention of the printing press, there was a interesting rush of activity in trying to pull together the world’s knowledge into a single source. Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know brings to light many of the historical efforts to manage information before the invention of the Internet.

This book is absolutely exploding with information on pre-modern attempts to codify information. It’s a bit dry, but the history and illustrations are worth it. From the early florilegia to 18th century dictionaries and encyclopedias, the timeline of information management is intriguing to say the least. Blair spends a long time on how note-taking affected information gathering. Almost no historical manuscript is devoid of notations or marginalia. These scribble give us insight into not only the perspective of the reader but also the orthography of the day. People even built special cabinets to store their notes on other sources. As literature became more affordable (after the printing press), catalogs of available books circulated to help guide readers to the proper books. Some intrepid souls even compiled their own bibliographies and concordances to help them keep track of their own information.

Blair’s writing is thick with history, and so, this one doesn’t read as fast as others. But none of it is extraneous. She is dutiful in both her research and her details. I’m a sucker for anything that has to do with ancient manuscripts and library practices, so I liked it, but it’s definitely not for everyone. The parts I found most interesting were the lengths people went through to make sure they had all their information organized. You know you have a bit too much time on your hands when you make your own Biblical concordances. Luckily, reference book printers came along and helped everyone out. A thick but informative read.