Ann Blair


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

Cover Interview of July 05, 2011

In a nutshell

This book is about how the feeling of being overloaded with information, especially things to read, isn’t a recent phenomenon. Similarly the tools for coping with overload, notably by managing information, have a long history.

In antiquity and the middle ages already scholars complained about the overabundance of books and the management tools in use included compilations of summaries and excerpts, organized under subject headings, and (starting in the 13th century) alphabetical indexing. When the spread of printing in the mid-15th century massively increased the number and availability of books, a much broader swath of the educated experienced overload and looked for remedies. The conditions were right for the commercial success of the reference book, which offered ready for use the best bits from all those books one didn’t have time to read.

Early printed reference books reached amazing proportions: a “standard” reference book like Domenico Nani Mirabelli’s Polyanthea, printed in over 40 editions, reached 2.5 million words by the early 17th century. The largest reference book exceeded 10 million words, in eight massive folio volumes.

For comparison the last print version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1985, amounted to 40 million words.  Wikipedia, freed from the constraints of production on paper, has far surpassed these numbers; the English-language Wikipedia is now close to an estimated 2.5 billion words (according to the page linked here, as accessed on June 16, 2011).

I investigate how such huge books were made in the days of manuscript composition and the hand press. Compilers used their own copious notes taken by copying excerpts from their reading. But they also included material collected by others, in print or in manuscript. Then, to save labor, material for a large book was often cut and pasted (very literally, with scissors and glue) from notes, letters or even printed books. Once a first edition was published, it served as the basis for regularly expanded reeditions, to which compilers and their printers added new material and new finding devices of increasing sophistication, such as lists of contents with PowerPoint-style indentations and multiple kinds of alphabetical indexes.