David Bell: What We’ve Lost With The Demise Of Print Encyclopedias | The New Republic

Link: David Bell: What We’ve Lost With The Demise Of Print Encyclopedias | The New Republic

But the great paper encyclopedias of the past had other, grander ambitions: They aspired to provide an overview of all human knowledge, and, still more boldly, to put that knowledge into a coherent, logical order. Even if they mostly organized their articles alphabetically, they also sought ways to link the material together thematically—all of it.

It might be argued that mapping out human knowledge has always, necessarily, been a quixotic project, akin to Casaubon’s “Key to All Mythologies.”

But the ambition mattered. It mattered that one could look at a stack of volumes and say: Here are vast libraries, distilled down into an essence of human knowledge, and organized in a logical order. The books testified to the hope that, ultimately, human beings had at least a measure of control over the overpowering torrents of facts and ideas that they collectively produce. Perhaps no single human being could truly have control—what more quixotic enterprise is there than reading through an encyclopedia from cover to cover? But at least the existence of the books gave us the sense that some points of dry land remained amidst the floods, some fragments shored against our ruins. The disappearance of these grand printed volumes, while inevitable, is yet another depressing sign of just how much we are now adrift in the limitless oceans of information.  

Another “we’re all lost in a sea of information now” screed. Some of us still work at organizing knowledge, or at least the products of knowledge, and it is still no less of a quixotic enterprise than it ever was. Today we just have a much better sense of how absolutely quixotic it is. Nonetheless, the attempt goes on and thus his conclusion is misplaced.

Documents ala Brown and Duguid

Among many things relegated to history’s scrap heap by relentless futurism have been, …, paper documents. Here, focus on the information they carry has distracted attention from the richer social roles that documents play—roles that may sustain paper documents despite the availability of digital ones. … …, we believe that documents, like other older technologies, probably will not be replaced (when they should be) or augmented (when they could be), if their richness and scope are underappreciated (xix-xx).

Argues that until we understand what documents do—physically and culturally—we will not understand what they are and how to replace or improve them. A narrow focus on the information that documents carry will fail to result in useful change.

Documents not only serve to make information but also to warrant it—to give it validity. Here again, the material side of documents plays a useful part. For information has trouble, as we all do, testifying on its own behalf (187).

So documents do not merely carry information, they help make it, structure it, and validate it. More intriguing, perhaps, documents also help structure society, enabling social groups to form, develop, and maintain a snese of shared identity (189).

Documents then contribute not only to forming and stabilizing the worlds but also, …, to reforming, destabilizing, and transforming them. The presence of heretics reminds us that the “information” is not the sole contributor here. The orthodox and the heretics both form around the same information or content. They are distinguished from one another by their unique disposition toward that information (193-4).

The political scientist Benedict Anderson provides yet another example of the way groups form around documents. He considered networks so large, so diverse, and so spread out that individual members could not possibly know one another. They nonetheless may develop a sense of membership and belonging if they can create an image of the group as a single community with a single identity. Anderson described the communities as “imagined” and claimed that shared documents play an essential part in this imagining.

Anderson argues that such a document culture made a key contribution to the creation of independent nations (194).

Ch. 7 “Reading the Background” provides excellent examples of what documents do, of the social roles they fill, and of the societies that they help to create.

On the issues of fluidity versus fixity of documents:

But fixity serves other purposes. As we have tried to indicate, it frames information. The way a writer and publisher physically present information, relying on resources outside the information itself, conveys to the reader much more than information alone. Context not only gives people what to read, it tells them how to read, where to read, what it means, what it’s worth, and why it matters (201).

On why more information is not the answer to problems with information:

The word context comes from the Latin cum (with) and texere (to weave) and etymologically suggests a process of weaving together. And document design weaves together the clues we have talked about to help readers read. No information comes without a context, but writers and designers always face the challenge of what to leave to context, what to information. The ease, availability, and enthusiasm for information often shifts this balancing act in favor of information. So, as noted in chapter 1, when there are problems with information, the solution offered is usually to add more. The history of documents and communities points in the other direction—toward less information, more context (202).

From: Brown, John Seeley, and Paul Duguid. 2002. The social life of information. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.  

[Originally posted about a year ago at: http://commonplacing.posterous.com/documents-ala-brown-and-duguid ]