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

by Ann M. Blair. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. 397 pp. $25.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-030016-5395.

In Too Much to Know, Ann M. Blair explores the modes of controlling information in the pre- and early modern eras. Confronted as we are today with massive amounts of information, much of it irrelevant, inaccurate or wrong, modern readers often feel overwhelmed by the task of obtaining only the information that they need. Indeed, this is an area (under the aegis of information literacy) where librarians and information scientists hope to offer their best insights. As Blair admirably demonstrates, this phenomenon is not at all new. The core question of dealing with an overabundance of information extends back thousands of years, although the author focuses her discussion on late medieval models up through the seventeenth century. More precisely, she explores the creation and spread of reference tools—in this case compilations of quotations, examples or bibliographical references.

The first chapter provides comparative views on “information management” with historical examples from antiquity, China, Islam, and Byzantium. The fundamental chasm the author discovers is between those who welcome a cornucopian abundance of books (with expansive reading) and those who reject their overabundance and thus advocate a narrow focus on only those books judged worthy to be read. The author points out that numerous methods promoted in the early modern period for dealing with large amounts of information had already been available to scholars for hundreds of years: “florilegia and dictionaries alphabetically arranged; compendia and encyclopedias systematically arranged; tables of contents; biblical concordances and alphabetical indexes; precise citations by book and chapter number …” (p. 33).

In the second chapter, Blair turns to methods of note-taking—whether as an aid to memory or an aid to writing—and the ways that scholars have tried to organize these notes to make it possible to find them again quickly. The inherent difficulty of documenting note taking is that these notes were generally intended to be ephemeral and so often disappeared. Frequently recorded on slips of paper, they were discarded after use, or occasionally preserved by being glued into notebooks. One seventeenth-century approach even promoted a “note closet” with hooks that allowed the notes to be rearranged as the collection grew.

Next Blair discusses several types of reference works—dictionaries, florilegia, miscellanies, commonplace books—and the various indexes and alphabetized headings that aided their use. One less-successful approach to arranging selected information that was more typical in early modern printed works was a branching diagram that tied numerous related concepts together. Some of the more successful examples of reference books include Ambrogio Calepino’s dictionary (which was still being published in the eighteenth century), as well as compilations like Domenico Nani Mirabelli’s Polyanthea (first published in 1503) and Theodor Zwinger’s Theatrum vitae humanae (later expanded by Laurentis Beyerlinck). The author returns to the latter two titles in chapter four, where she discusses the compilers (Nani, Zwinger and Beyerlinck) and their working methods in more detail. Other forms of new reference tools that later became standard include library catalogs, bibliographies, sales catalogs, and book reviews.

The final chapter on “The Impact of Early Printed Reference Books” is much shorter than the others but raises intriguing questions for further study. While larger works like the Polyanthea and Zwinger’s Theatrum were distributed across Europe, they mostly ended up in libraries, not in private hands. And those that remain are often no longer in their original home among the books that were their original neighbors. One result is that many of these books have fewer annotations and provide less insight into the thoughts of their readers than personal copies might offer. One can look to the use of these compilations by other authors, or especially to complaints about the excessive use of such compilations, for evidence of reception of these editions. By and large, however, the age of massive compilations had died out by the early eighteenth century and these were soon replaced by new dictionaries and new encyclopedias in English (by Chambers) and French (by Diderot).

With Too Much to Know, Ann M. Blair has given both information specialists and scholars of cultural studies a healthy dose of alterity in the mindset of early modern Europeans. Going beyond the analysis of great works by famous authors, she has exposed a very different way of thinking that should inform scholarly discourse across disciplines, while reminding librarians (including rare book librarians) that anxieties like those prompted by the twenty-first-century information explosion are not entirely new and will likely never entirely go away.

Matthew Z. Heintzelman, Hill Museum & Manuscript Library