In a blog post last week, I discussed Robert Darnton’s recently published article in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “The Chronicle Review”, where Mr. Darnton identified and debunked, “5 Myths About the Information Age.” The first myth he debunked was the notion that the book is dead. Not only is the book not dead, it is thriving. I commented on the relationship between the printed page and how it can be supported by digital content and vice versa. One can drive greater usage of the other, if the digital content is effectively designed.
The second myth he discredited is, “We have entered the information age.” The core point he makes is that many periods in history have had an “information age”. Indeed, theory of knowledge discussions and debates go back to at least the Greek philosophers. At the core of any discussion of information ages are theories of knowledge and knowledge organization systems (KOS). We have been struggling with storing and organizing information gluts since storytelling began.
At the beginning of the great “information age of papyrus”, pundits saw it as the salvation to information overload. Papyrus proved to be expensive and perishable (although some have survived two millennia, which will probably prove to be a better track record than, say, floppy diskettes), but still there were so many produced that storing, preserving, and organizing them became a challenge, not to mention the occasional, annoying papyrus that exposed a tyrant with competing camps simultaneously trying to preserve and destroy it. Papyrus was a huge step forward for the capture, distribution, and preservation of knowledge. However, rather than papyrus being the solution to information overload, it exacerbated the problem.
Gutenberg’s press accelerated the production of information along with its distribution, storage, and preservation challenges. It quickly became apparent that storage and preservation were best accomplished by creating large collections, which made it impossible to find anything without some organizing principles (KOS).
Taxonomies have been around for eons to facilitate storage, retrieval, and discovery. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) is best known for his work on the classification of plants and animals. Lesser known is that he designed his first KOS taxonomy to organize his extensive collection of books. Taxonomies proved invaluable for the organization of physical items in libraries and similarly large collections of information. Their usefulness has been recently rediscovered by the digital world. Ironically, they have proven to be of greater value for organizing digital content than physical collections. Digital collections do not yet have the physical references we use to find our way around libraries. We use library cataloging information and shelf markers, but we also use other physical clues such as the placement of a copy machine or desk in relation to the shelving of current interest. Most of us use these other visual clues to quickly return to a section of shelving for further browsing. Such purposeful and coincidental landmarks do not have digital equivalents. Negotiating a terabyte collection requires other solutions, and taxonomies do the trick best. Unlike dynamic cluster techniques, which are like the moving staircases at Hogwarts, taxonomic signposts are persistent, accurate, and reliable.
Yes, we are in an “Information Age” that is characterized by the move to digital, but as Darnton points out, there have been information ages for ages. And while the move to ever more digital will continue, not everything is digital nor will become digital, according to Darnton. He points out that libraries are busier than ever not, only because so much of the best is not digital, but also because users need librarians as guides to cyber information. The future will be more and more digital, but Darnton correctly points out that this trend will not kill off print and other media, but rather enrich them. So, while there is still some summer left, grab your reading vehicle of choice, be it book, iPad, Nook, or nothing, and rest quietly, knowing you will always have choices and your choices will be getting better.
Jay Ven Eman, CEO