Google “information,” and you will be presented with over 10 billion results. Try another search engine, or the catalogue of your local library, or the front page of a major news site, and you will be even more spoiled for choice. Yet while there is no denying that our current state of information overload is novel in its immense scale, Ann M. Blair’s study Too Much To Know indicates that even our early modern predecessors struggled with some of the same problems. It’s not hard to imagine why: even before the Internet, who could have read every book in the library of Alexandria?
In Blair’s book, which is subtitled Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, she gives extensive treatment to florilegia, works in which individuals compiled the most worthy passages from a variety of works to create an anthology. The word literally means bouquet, but Blair’s usage of florilegium better corresponds to the word’s second definition, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as, “a collection of the flowers of literature.”
In Michael Dirda’s review from the Washington Post, he discusses another innovation in data management to be found in Too Much To Know, the “note closet” invented in the 17th century: “a wall of hooks, with 3,000 headings, upon which one could arrange individual slips bearing on every aspect of learning and knowledge.” Blair includes an illustration in the book, in which the closet looks like a cross between a pasta factory and the ribbon section of a craft store, but given that the philosopher Leibniz owned his own, who are we to argue?
Today, the iPad has taken over the role of the note closet, and every website is another daisy for our data bouquets. Yet still, key questions remain: how do we know where to find the best information? Which flowers should we pick? In a conversation on NPR’s “Talk of Nation,” Blair acknowledges that our current state of information overload places new pressures on education. Yet again, she argued, we have something to learn from our scholarly forbearers, who taught “judicum: judgment.” In her words, “you train them by having them read the good stuff so that when they come across the bad stuff they’ll have the judgments to tell the difference.”