Ann Blair writes about information overload in the Boston Globe: “[In the 16th century] the literate classes experienced exactly the kind of overload we feel today — suddenly, there were far more books than any single person could master, and no end in sight. Scholars, at first delighted with the new access to information, began to despair. “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” asked Erasmus, the great humanist of the early 16th century.
But amid the concern, that crisis began to generate something else: a raft of innovative new methods for dealing with the accumulation of information. These included early plans for public libraries, the first universal bibliographies that tried to list all books ever written, the first advice books on how to take notes, and encyclopedic compilations larger and more broadly diffused than ever before. Detailed outlines and alphabetical indexes let readers consult books without reading them through, and the makers of large books experimented with slips of paper for cutting and pasting information from manuscripts and printed matter — a technique that, centuries later, would become essential to modern word processing.”
And more from this must-read piece: “What we share with our ancestors, though, is the sense of excess. Most Internet searches will turn up vastly more results than can be used. Too much of the bad stuff, not enough of the good, has been the subtext of complaints about overload from the beginning. But like the early modern compilers, we too are devising ways to cope. In many ways, our key methods of coping with overload haven’t changed since the 16th century: We still need to select, summarize, and sort, and ultimately need human judgment and attention to guide the process.”
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