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Ann M. Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-300-16539-5 416 pp. Pbk $25

Reviewed by Alexandrina Buchanan

[1]  Who has never thought T.M.I. (too much information) – a common retort to modern modes of confession? Yet contemporary awareness of information overload extends beyond the introduction of formerly ‘private’ information into the public sphere. The use of email for communication, the emergence of the Web as a resource for the storage and retrieval of information and that ability to self-publish and store information in ever-expanding volumes have transformed our daily lives. Whilst we continue to rely on the written word, these changes also require us to mistrust it. Most undergraduate courses include some form of ‘study skills’, designed to teach students that there is more to research than Google and Wikipedia. Instead they are initiated into the traditional scholarly techniques of note-taking, referencing and compiling bibliographies, and are shown the scholarly resources designed to help their studies: reference books, catalogs, indexes etc. Yet, at the same time, the new ‘Digital Humanities’ aims to develop new methods to take advantage of the digital research environment. We are thus at a point of transition from a world where, with the human assistance of indexers, cataloguers and those ‘expert readers’ who write reviews and encyclopaedia entries, scholars can reasonably hope to be aware of everything defined as being ‘in their field’, to a world in which the expanded archive makes this hope unachievable.Ann Blair employs our sense that we are embarking on new territory, in which scholarship has transformed from learning facts to developing search strategies, to give contemporary relevance to her fascinating study of scholarship in a similarly transitional era. Too Much to Know focuses on sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe, when printing transformed the information ecology. It examines how contemporary scholars and, especially, the publishers who made their living from adding to the bibliographical flood, sought to control the deluge of books by developing tools to manage the knowledge they contained. Information is here defined not as raw data but as something already digested and communicated, generally contained in book-shaped objects. Blair explores how such knowledge (from the Bible, the Church Fathers, the Classics and modern scholarship) was liberated from its original context and repackaged for potential re-use. Priority is given to textual bibliographical materials: archives, museums, herbaria, cabinets of curiosities and other information resources are mentioned but not explored, also absent are other means of compiling and disseminating data through print, such as maps and atlases, tables and graphs etc. For these, the reader might turn to Daniel R Headrick’s When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[2]  Despite its restrictions, the book is itself an example of the practices (and problems) discussed. It is both thesaurus and florilegium, a treasury of erudite details derived from the author’s impressively extensive reading: it is telling that the bibliography, at 58 pages, is one fifth as long as the main text (and would likely extend to a quarter if printed in the same sized font). Opened at random, the book intrigues the researcher with examples, both described and illustrated, with the use of images, albeit limited, adding enormously to the value of the work. This is not to say that there are no underpinning arguments but the mass of information is often so overwhelming that only a disciplined reader can tease them out. Faced with this challenge, one wonders whether the linear structure of traditional historiography is inadequate to Blair’s project, forcing her into creating narrative links where the branching structure of the ‘Ramist’ diagram (whose most complex genealogy is discussed), or even the random linkages of the internet would be more appropriate. The book is arranged to move from the theoretical (the concept of information management), to the practical (information resources, such as notes and published reference genres), to the personal and societal (making visible the work of the creators of reference works and their impact). Each of the five chapters has multiple sub-divisions, which could usefully have been listed on the Contents page.

[3]  Although parallels with the modern world are regularly drawn, Blair is also alert to the risk of anachronism. Nevertheless she is wary of claiming her chosen temporal and geographical range as unique, demonstrated by the inclusion of ‘A Comparative Interlude’, making reference to Byzantium, Islam and China. Although the function of this comparison within her argument is clear, these are not her own areas of specialism and the potentially artificial interlude rather adds to the sense of information overload. Byzantium had ceased to exist by the period of Blair’s focus; Islam is not a place or time but a religion, such that a more meaningful comparison might be with how Christianity (rather than researchers within a particular spatial and temporal framework, who were culturally but not necessarily professionally Christian) managed to deal with information from outside its own core texts, whilst comparison with China seems predicated on its use of print technology, though this is not stated and, without moveable type, the technological similarities are limited. Taken as a whole, the comparisons seem closer than the contrasts, leading to a sense that there has never been a time or place when humans have not experienced information fatigue. Whether this sense of plus ça change is helpful, in a work focused on a specific historical context, is debateable, but certainly demonstrates that similar perceptions can be matched to very different circumstances and that contemporary pronouncements should not therefore be accepted at face value.

[4]  One of the welcome aspects of the breadth of Blair’s coverage is that it reveals that many of the practices she describes have earlier origins. Too often, renaissance or early modern specialists accept contemporary evaluations of their period and overlook any dependence on medieval practices. Likewise, whilst accepting that the advent of print transformed the scholarly environment, Blair’s account acknowledges the inter-dependence of print and manuscript. Her study is also pan-European in coverage, recognising the internationalism of scholarly networks in which northern Europe plays a role equally important to Italy. Blair’s research represents an archaeology of the book which extends beyond the codex to the underlying intellectual practices involved in research and writing, and the physical contexts in which these took place. As such, it offers a valuable example of modern intellectual history, integrating production with reception and asking important (if not entirely original) questions about both. How should we interpret surviving ‘notes’ and what is their relationship to knowledge experiences? How were manuscript notes shared and communicated – how ‘private’ was personal research? To what extent can citation be used as evidence of reading (or is an intermediary text, such as an encyclopaedia involved)? How should notions of ‘authorship’ be reconfigured to incorporate the unoriginal, but essential, scholarship involved in compilation, classification and summary?

[5]  What Blair’s book reveals most powerfully is that facing up to the challenge of the print environment mattered. The sheer numbers of scholars included, from big names like Erasmus to the obscure and often anonymous amanuenses; the wide variety of techniques involved and their spread and longevity is well evidenced from original manuscript material. Here we have the literal confirmation of the ‘scissors and paste’ scholarship R. G. Collingwood condemned, side by side with the more mobile methods of card indexes and the envy-inducing note closet designed to classify note-slips according to over 3,000 headings. Such endeavours took time and effort and must have shaped the way the literate thought. Yet we should also be aware that not everyone was comfortable with the new methods. As archivist at The Clothworkers’ Company in London, I was faced with contemporary indexes to books of Court Orders which not only referred to subjects by their chronology within the Clothworker-specific Master’s Year (beginning the Monday after the Sunday of, or after, the Feast of the Assumption in August) but included entries such as ‘A letter’, logically – but unhelpfully – filed under ‘A’. Whether such incongruities affected the corporate memory or daily management of the Company, however, remains unknown. Doubtless every reader, with an interest in this field will be prompted to ask similar questions, and will thus owe Blair a debt of gratitude for her thought-provoking account.

University of Liverpool, September 2012