Margaret Heller's Reviews > Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age

Too Much to Know by Ann M. Blair
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's review
Dec 14, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: library, technology, media-studies
Read from December 14, 2011 to January 02, 2012

The problems of an overabundance of information is a perennial complaint, but how scholars have dealt with this has evolved over time. Early modern scholars worked in a transitional period where one medium--the manuscript--was being superseded by a new medium--the printed book. This book focuses on the methods of information gathering and retrieval by scholars during the 14th-17th centuries.

There were several things I found particularly striking about this book. First, there was a great concern that the best books be preserved, and the bad or heretical books suppressed. To this end, people were encouraged to read a few books slowly and consciously rather than many books quickly.

Note-taking was a major component of reading carefully (it still is), and organizing notes in the most efficacious way was a major undertaking and area of publishing. For instance, people were advised to keep extra notebooks to index their notes by subject. An note closet was the ideal piece of furniture envisioned to store notes, basically a library card catalog type of furniture where notes could be stored, indexed, and cross-indexed. The most careful scholars kept careful track of their notes and indexed them frequently. Others liked to make fun of themselves for lack of care and piling up notes without a scheme.

Composing on slips of paper was a common way to turn these notes into new works. Notes would be extracted and copied (or whole sections cut out of copies of books) and pasted onto another sheet. The whole would then be copied out again or given directly to the printer in that manner. There are some really interesting reproductions of such efforts. I am amazed that so many of them are extant.

Ultimately a lot of this work would turn into reference books of the "florilegium" type, which is to say books of quotations from the ancient sources. This was a way to come to grips with the abundance of information and also to select what is worth knowing. These books were edited and censored with different editions for Protestants and Catholics. It is hard to say exactly how much they were used, because people didn't and don't cite reference books, plus at a certain point it was embarrassing to admit you relied on a reference book rather than going to the original source. Enlightenment thinking made it better to think for yourself rather than rely on textual authority.

This is a fascinating and illuminating study of the work habits of these scholars, and extremely instructive for those working in our own transitional period.
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Reading Progress

12/15/2011 page 11
12/20/2011 page 25
6.0% "A lot of learning in the past was by reading summaries and epitomes of larger works. Cliffs Notes are nothing new."
12/21/2011 page 40
10.0% "I respect this book because it actually talks about what was going on in the Arab and Chinese worlds rather than just saying that stuff was going on."
12/22/2011 page 102
25.0% "John Locke was very responsible in indexing his notes. Not like some of those other naughty early moderns who lost things... Leibniz. Also 16th century faculty wrote about how to get their students to collaborate on projects."
12/28/2011 page 136
33.0% "It's better to make your own notes, but not your own copies."
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Emily (new)

Emily Cool, I've had this on my Amazon wishlist forever. I should move it up...

message 2: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark Nice review. Thanks. I need to move it up on my list also. Maybe it should replace something else in my current book challenge list. Hmm. Also have to decide whether I want to acquire it or get it from the library.

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