Campus & Community

Data overload nothing new:

6 min read

Too much information has vexed scholars for centuries

Ann Blair studies reference works: ‘Ultimately, what these books offer you is notes that you would have taken if you had had the time to do so.’ (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

Professor of History Ann Blair ’84 tells of a 17th century German scholar who created a portable cabinet in which to store his notes. He’d jot notes on cards and hang them on alphabetical hooks in the cabinet, then rearrange them as he accumulated additional information.

Writing and researching her own undergraduate thesis, Blair was a trailblazer in using a “portable” Kaypro, a clunky, pre-DOS predecessor to today’s PCs.

And she’s surprised that while her current students certainly have sleeker, more powerful computers at their disposal, they continue to take notes with pen and paper.

For Blair, an intellectual historian, such observations are more than casual. She’s at work on a book, “Coping With Information Overload in Early Modern Europe” (working title), to be published by Yale University Press, that probes how scholars in the 15th through 17th centuries selected, sorted, and stored the vast volumes of information they gathered about the world around them.

Her work, which brought her the MacArthur Foundation’s coveted and unbidden $500,000, no-strings-attached grant in September 2002, has both roots in and implications for contemporary culture and scholarship.

“It’s partly driven by my personal experience in changing media,” she says. “We have experienced, as a culture generally and as individuals certainly, a heightened awareness of how we work as the ways we work change with new technologies.”

And, of course, the problems of information overload persist today – on a far greater scale than in the past.

Taking good notes

Blair, who became a full professor while on leave 2001-02 after eight years on the Harvard faculty, is interested in the material culture of scholarship in the early modern period as well as the changing ways in which scholars managed information. What were their desks and writing utensils like? How many books did they have?

Particularly, she’s curious about note taking. While there were pedagogical principles for note taking, it was always acknowledged to be a highly personal practice. Ideally, one took notes by selecting the best parts of the books one read and entering them into a notebook under a topical heading to which one could return for reference later.

In her current research, Blair looks at four books as examples of the many reference books – “books in which you find useful stuff,” she says – that were produced and updated in the early modern period. Often reprinted, though they could be very expensive, these books stood in for one’s own notes.

“Ultimately, what these books offer you is notes that you would have taken if you had had the time to do so. They’re notes taken by another person for any number of possible uses,” she says.

Blair’s favorite – the “Theatrum humanae vitae” (Theater of Human Life) by Theodore Zwinger, a professor of medicine at the University of Basel – started off as a hefty folio of 1,400 pages in 1565 and grew in 1631 to eight folio volumes totaling 7,500 pages. This “Magnum theatrum,” in which the index alone ran to 800 pages, was published in five editions down to 1707. As a researcher, Blair is grateful that Houghton Library was able to buy a copy of the work that she tracked down via the Internet.

The antecedent to a modern encyclopedia, Zwinger’s work is multidisciplinary, encompassing natural history, human history, and rhetoric, and arranged by subject matter.

“He sees it as a moral work. He’s going to show you all the examples of human behavior, he says modestly, ‘just as God will see at the Last Judgment,’” says Blair. The work’s goal is that the reader will learn from examples that vice will be punished and virtue rewarded.

While some examples come from real-life or personal stories, most of them are culled from classical sources: “all those books you didn’t have time to read, the best stuff from them, selected out and sorted, as you would in a notebook,” she says.

The explosion of information

Reference books like Zwinger’s were certainly a response to information overload, says Blair, although as a historian she’s loath to pinpoint a start date to the phenomenon.

“Contemporaries start to articulate the problem of the overabundance of books around the 1550s,” she says. “It does become a refrain.”

Yet reference books emerge several centuries earlier as a way to manage the explosion of information available to scholars. Not coincidentally, says Blair, the 13th century also marks the rise of the university and the acceptance of Aristotle as a source scholars wanted to be able to cite with precision. As scholars began to comment on Aristotle, the volume of knowledge and understanding multiplied.

“Rapidly you end up with a textual tradition that needs to be mastered and managed. With each generation it gets bigger,” says Blair. “It doesn’t take much to overload a human with more than they can handle.”

Blair is quick to exonerate the printing press, an obvious culprit, in adding significantly to information overload.

“I want to moderate the idea that it’s printing that suddenly revolutionizes the way people work, because I think in fact, that’s not the case,” she says. Printing did, however, create a greater volume of work that was accessible to a wider audience. Where once only master scholars owned a book, printing made them available to average teachers and possibly even students.

New technologies, old problems

While Blair’s career has taken her to Princeton, where she did her Ph.D.; to research in France; and to the University of California, Irvine, where she was an assistant professor, she’s pleased that the permanence that comes with tenure anchors her in Harvard and Cambridge, her first academic home. Since she grew up outside the country, in Geneva, Switzerland, the area has particular significance as her first real U.S. home.

“It’s nice to be in a place that one has so many layers of contact with,” she says.

Contemporary comparisons to Blair’s work are hard to resist, and although her scholarship is firmly rooted in the past, she gladly teases out the parallels between the plight of the 16th century scholar and that of the 21st century Harvard student.

One of the biggest pitfalls of early modern reference books still dogs students today: Using them necessarily takes information or quotations out of context.

“Part of the challenge of doing good work is you have to attend to the original context. You’ve got to use your mind, you’ve got to use your brain, you’ve got to use your judgment,” she says.

And, as anyone who’s spent more than a moment surfing the World Wide Web knows, bad information is as prolific as good; sifting the dubious from the reliable remains a challenge as information overload persists.

“The overall thrust of what I’m doing would have the effect of saying that what we’re going through is not the first-ever situation of its kind, not to overdramatize it,” she says. “This has been going on for a long time. As have the ways of coping that we still rely on.”