Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ann M. Blair's "Too Much To Know"

Ann M. Blair is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Harvard University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, and reported the following:
On page 99 I’m talking about how the slip of paper appeared as a method for taking and storing notes in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My book studies the working methods of early modern European scholars, roughly 1500-1700, as they coped with a rapid accumulation of textual information generated by the printing press and by their own enthusiasm for trying to store and manage all those books. Chapter 2 (where page 99 occurs) looks at note-taking as a way of managing books, by selecting the best passages and storing them under topical headings for later retrieval.

There were no standard note cards for sale in this period. Slips were made by cutting up a sheet of paper to fit the separate pieces of writing on it. Some advised against using slips because they could easily become lost or disordered, for example from a breeze blowing in from an open window or door. But because slips could be moved around, they were first recommended as a method for alphabetizing entries, for example in a library catalog or an alphabetical index. Each entry for the catalog or index would be entered on a slip and the slips rearranged until they were all properly ordered; then the slips would be glued safely into place, and the catalog or index was done and might be printed at that point. The idea of a library catalog kept only on slips to which additions could be made over time first developed in the 18th century.

Some authors also used slips to add items into their already full notebooks. Quite exceptionally, the Pensées of Blaise Pascal (1623-62) were printed from slips stored in bundles held together with a string running through them. Pascal planned to use these notes to write an apology of Christianity, but died before he could carry out the project. After his death the slips were glued into notebooks by his heirs; but the order in which to present them has been a matter of debate ever since.

Other chapters of my book discuss the printed reference books and finding devices that offered shortcuts to the accumulation of texts of interest focused on classical antiquity which was the central field of learning at the time. I examine the origins of these books in ancient and medieval models, the ways in which they were made (sometimes from slips cut directly out of printed books to save the labor of copying from them), and how they were read and used, and by whom.
Learn more about Too Much to Know at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue