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Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age

por Ann M. Blair

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The flood of information brought to us by advancing technology is often accompanied by a distressing sense of "information overload," yet this experience is not unique to modern times. In fact, says Ann M. Blair in this intriguing book, the invention of the printing press and the ensuing abundance of books provoked sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European scholars to register complaints very similar to our own. Blair examines methods of information management in ancient and medieval Europe as well as the Islamic world and China, then focuses particular attention on the organization, composition, and reception of Latin reference books in print in early modern Europe. She explores in detail the sophisticated and sometimes idiosyncratic techniques that scholars and readers developed in an era of new technology and exploding information.… (mais)
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Mostrando 4 de 4
Nice idea; too academic in tone. ( )
  mikeolson2000 | Dec 27, 2023 |
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. ( )
1 vote NielsenGW | Jul 26, 2013 |
Timothy Burke's NOTES ARCHIVE

Sept. 18, 2012

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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 ( )
  TimothyBurke | Sep 18, 2012 |
"Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books? Even if, taken out one at a time, they offered something worth knowing, the very mass of them would be a serious impediment to learning from satiety if nothing else, which can do more damage where good things are concerned or simply from the fact that men's minds are easily glutted and hungry for something new, and so these distractions call them away from the reading of ancient authors."

The words of a cantankerous contemporary critic, perhaps? Oh no, that was Erasmus, writing in 1525, blaming the advent of mass printing for a flood of new (mostly bad) books. It's just one of the many examples from Ann Blair's delightful and important new book (I'm sure even Erasmus would agree) Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (Yale University Press, 2010). Ours is not the first age by a long shot in which scholars and readers have complained of "information overload," Blair argues - and through a careful study of reference books in the 16-17th centuries and their antecedents, she ably illustrates how earlier readers managed to keep their heads above the flood (and how many of the techniques we still use today originated with their efforts).

Blair begins with a historical and comparative overview of "information management" techniques, offering an examination of the Renaissance compulsion to preserve texts as scholars began to recognize the severe losses of ancient texts suffered during the Middle Ages, and then broadening the scope to look at ancient attempts to organize information (the Pinakes, for example) and at how non-European cultures (Byzantium, Islamic societies, and China) dealt with excessive amounts of information. She then surveys the genres of reference books she considers here, including compendia and florilegia (collections of excerpts), dictionaries, concordances, and proto-encyclopedias.

In the first chapter Blair also makes a key argument: that while many organizational methods were developed during the manuscript era, "Printing shaped both the nature of the information explosion, by making more books on more topics available to more readers, and the methods for coping with it, including a wide range of printed reference tools. Printing diffused more broadly than ever before existing techniques for managing information and encouraged experimentation with new ones, including new layouts, finding devices, and methods of composition" (pp. 13-14). The coming of print coincided with "multiple challenges to received opinion that originated from other causes ... and that spawned new habits of critical thinking and new philosophical systems founded on empirical and rational argument. Just as these various movements would have developed differently without the presence of print, so too the impact of the technology would have been different if it had not coincided with these movements. Instead of trying to reduce the complex impact of a technology or of any particular set of ideas, we can examine how contemporaries responded to an increasingly abundant and varied range of sources of information, both in theory and in practice" (p. 47).

Blair's second chapter serves as a history of note-taking, important since many of the key reference books under consideration began as one scholar's collected notes on a topic (and, when published, served as "ready-made reading notes" for other scholars. Through the deft use of case studies on the taking and use of notes (Pliny the Younger and Thomas Aquinas), and by finding some excellent examples of well-known scholars having trouble keeping their notes organized (Leibniz: "After having done something, I forget it almost entirely within a few months, and rather than searching for it amid a chaos of jottings that I do not have the leisure to arrange and mark with headings I am obliged to do the work all over again" - pp. 87-88), Blair leads her reader into a discussion of the various techniques and tools that came into use as for "note management" (headings, cross-references, indexing, mechanical cabinets, &c.). Beyond even this, though, she examines processes of collaborative note-taking, shared and circulated annotations, and the use of family members or hired amanuenses for the taking or organization of notes.

A full survey of the types of finding devices typical of the genres of reference works considered follows in the third chapter. These include lists of authorities, tables of contents, indexes of various types, branching diagrams, and layout techniques (spacing, color, columns, &c.). This section is well populated with useful images, which do much to complement the text. Blair also examines a genre of particular interest to readers of this review: books about books and bibliographies (including library and sale catalogs, book reviews, reading manuals, &c.), surveying their origins, organization methods, and styles.

Blair's fourth chapter delves more deeply into the compilation process as she seeks to get at the varying motivations of those who created reference books and examines their working methods (these works required a pretty serious commitment in time and resources, she argues), and also forced the compilers to utilize effective management techniques (one of which was to use small paper slips which could be organized as necessary, or to cut and paste - terms we all every day and which have their roots in this tradition - from manuscripts or printed books).

Finally, Blair takes a stab at evaluating the impact of these reference books, noting the patterns of distribution and longevity, the kinds of use they received (somewhat difficult to evaluate, she says, since most authors who used reference books in their own works generally didn't cite them), and the complaints that were leveled against them (these included the fear that the original materials would be lost, that the excerpts in reference books were taken out of context and were often full of errors, and that the use of reference works diminished the quality of learning).

Beginning around 1680, Blair suggests, the massive Latin reference works compiling ancient knowledge began to give way to a different type of work: vernacular reference texts, focused less on the distant past and more on recent or current events. Library catalogs and indexes began to come into their own, so that Samuel Johnson could tell Boswell "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into a subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues and at the backs of books in libraries" (pg. 263). This type of "consultation reading" (which is of course the same thing we do today, in books and online) was helped along by the books Blair considers here.

In as good an epilogue as I've ever read, Blair brings the argument into the present day, offering not only a look at more recent trends in reference, but an optimistic look into the future: "The story of the management of textual information in personal notes and printed reference books, 1500-1700, could be presented as a decline narrative from the heights of great learning to an increasing reliance on shortcuts and substitutes, or alternatively, as a triumphalist account of new methods democratized and made increasingly sophisticated. Similarly, among those reflecting on current and future developments, the doomsayers on the one hand and the info-boosters on the other often seem the loudest voices. ... The decline narrative has been in use for centuries and continues to appeal today, often fueled by general anxieties rather than specific changes. But given the long history of the trope, it seems no more appropriate to our context than it does to the Renaissance of the Middle Ages when it was used so extensively" (p. 267).

Today, Blair maintains (and I agree), "judgment is as central as ever in selecting, assessing, and synthesizing information to create knowledge responsibly" (p. 267). Too much information is nothing new (although the current scale can certainly be fairly compared to the overload experienced by our Renaissance-era predecessors), and we, just as they, will need to work our way through the morass carefully and judiciously.

Too Much to Know is greatly enhanced by the full and very useful notes, as well as the extensive list of works cited (almost sixty pages worth). The whole package is a remarkable accomplishment, a fine read, and certainly one of the most impressive books of 2010.

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2010/12/book-review-too-much-to-know.html ( )
5 vote JBD1 | Dec 20, 2010 |
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Nome do autorPapelTipo de autorObra?Estado
Ann M. Blairautor principaltodas as ediçõescalculado
Blair, AnnRévision de la traduction françaiseautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Chartier, RogerPréfaceautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Krespine, BernardTraductionautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado

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Préface (Roger Chartier)
Entre la perte et l’excès

Lorsqu’il fut publié aux États-Unis sous le titre Too Much to Know,
le livre d’Ann Blair reçut un accueil dont les ouvrages savants sont
très généralement privés. [...]
Introduction

Nous pensons vivre dans une société de l’information radicalement
nouvelle. En réalité, nombre de nos façons de penser l’information
et de la traiter sont issues de cadres de pensée et de pratiques qui
remontent à des siècles. [...]
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Wikipédia em inglês (3)

The flood of information brought to us by advancing technology is often accompanied by a distressing sense of "information overload," yet this experience is not unique to modern times. In fact, says Ann M. Blair in this intriguing book, the invention of the printing press and the ensuing abundance of books provoked sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European scholars to register complaints very similar to our own. Blair examines methods of information management in ancient and medieval Europe as well as the Islamic world and China, then focuses particular attention on the organization, composition, and reception of Latin reference books in print in early modern Europe. She explores in detail the sophisticated and sometimes idiosyncratic techniques that scholars and readers developed in an era of new technology and exploding information.

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