Ann Blair


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

Cover Interview of July 06, 2011

The wide angle

This book illustrates the long history of the basic moves of information management on which we still rely today, even with digital tools. I call them the 4S’s: selecting, summarizing, sorting, and storing.

The criteria of utility have changed by which we select and summarize and sort, as have the media we use for storage.  But we too still operate by choosing what to retain, by paraphrasing, quoting and labeling that material, so that we can find it again and combine it with other material in a process of human judgment and creativity.  In examining the past of the working methods based on ink on paper that we are poised to abandon, we can reflect on what methods of working in the analog mode we want to be sure to transfer to the digital.

I started as an intellectual historian of early modern Europe (roughly 1450-1750) with a special interest in the history of science and how knowledge was diffused to non-specialists, e.g. to students and a broader educated readership (notably in encyclopedic works). Thanks to my teachers in graduate school and the scholars and librarians who helped me during my research abroad, I became interested in methods of book history.

In researching my dissertation, on an encyclopedia of natural philosophy by the famous political philosopher Jean Bodin, I conducted a survey of extant copies of that work and discovered how much one can learn from the surviving copies of a book—about the people who read the books, who left marks of ownership, annotations, personalized bindings, but also, thanks to the leads provided by these past readers, about what the text meant to them, which isn’t always readily discernible to us today.

Since the late 1980s, when I first started doing research, digitization has opened up vast new possibilities for research in primary sources.  But I am also convinced of the virtues of learning about books from viewing them first-hand whenever possible.

The physical copies hold many clues about how a book was used in its time and since—which cannot be fully conveyed by digitization. Digitization makes a single copy stand for all copies of an edition, but not all the books in a print run were identical, and individual owners each used their copy in unique ways. This is even more true of manuscripts, which are individually unique, and are comparatively rarely digitized for the early modern period.