Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Five top books on the history of information

Ann M. Blair is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Harvard University.

Her latest book is Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age.

With Eve Gerber at The Browser, Blair discussed five top books on the history of information, including:
Paper Machines
by Markus Krajewski

Card catalogues is the subject explored in your final choice, German historian Markus Krajewski’s Paper Machines.

Paper Machines is a really fun book that’s just been translated into English. It explores the development of the movable slip as a tool of information management. In the 16th century a Swiss bibliographer named Conrad Gesner first recommended slips as a method for indexing books. He recommended collecting the material to index on separate slips, some actually cut out of books and others handwritten. The slips would be interfiled in alphabetical order, using a temporary glue (for which he provided a recipe) so they could be kept in place and moved around. When all the slips were properly alphabetised, they could be glued in place permanently on sheets and the index was done. Gesner’s is the first documented description of how to use slips.

Why are slips so important to the history of information?

Slips were valuable because they are mobile, but the mobility also posed the danger that wind or a mischievous cat would cause slips to become out of order and you’d end up with chaos. In the 17th century a special piece of furniture was devised called a “literary closet” that featured hooks associated with subject headings on to which you could stick your slips. The hooks would keep the slips from blowing away but you could still move a slip from one hook to another to reorder the material. Problem solved, except that this literary closet was an expensive piece of office furniture and did not have a lot of impact. It took until the late 18th century for library catalogues to use mobile slips as a permanent way of storing material. The movable card catalogue had a long career after that.
Read about the other books Blair tagged.

The Page 99 Test: Markus Krajewski's Paper Machines.

The Page 99 Test: Ann Blair's Too Much to Know.

--Marshal Zeringue