Approaching the History of Information and Media from Many Different Viewpoints
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“As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes….” – Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie (1755).
"A chronological record of significant events...often including an explanation of their causes."-- definition of history from the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, accessed 12-2010.
"History (from Greek ἱστορία - historia, meaning 'inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation') is the study of the human past."-- Wikipedia, accessed 12-2010.
As the quotation from Denis Diderot suggests, the information overload that we associate with the Internet is not new. While the explosion of information resulting from the Internet is undoubtedly compounding an old problem, the Internet has also brought us new tools to explore both the rapidly expanding universe of information and the history of information. Using these new tools, HistoryofInformation.com is designed to help you follow the development of information and media, and attitudes about them, from the beginning of records to the present. Containing annotated references to discoveries, developments of a social, scientific, theoretical or technological nature, as well as references to physical books, documents, artifacts, art works, and to websites and other digital media, it arranges, both chronologically and thematically, selected historical examples and selected recent developments of the methods used to record, distribute, exchange, organize, store, and search information. The database allows you to approach the topics in a wide variety of ways.
For many years I have been accustomed to organizing information chronologically and thematically. Whenever I witness a new development I find myself searching for its precursors, and when I study historical developments I try to view them within the context of prior and later events. In 1991 I issued the fifth edition of Morton's Medical Bibliography, a collection of annotated chronological lists of the primary and secondary historical literature of medicine and biology. This printed book of 1243 pages, now somewhat dated but still widely used, contains 8927 entries. When I prepared the new edition during the late 1980s I wrote the manuscript in a word processing program, but did all of my research from books and printed periodicals, either in my own library or at institutions. Among the limitations of the work in codex form were the rigid way it had to be organized, space limitations of the physical volume, and the indexes, which occupied the final 200 pages.
The roots of the present project are in a relatively brief static timeline on the history of computing, networking and telecommunications that I published in my 2002 printed book Origins of Cyberspace. In my 2005 printed book, From Gutenberg to the Internet, I expanded the 2002 timeline somewhat. Dissatisfied with that effort, and searching for a way to put rapidly evolving modern developments in perspective, but unaware of any model for my research, I continued expanding the timeline on my website, historyofscience.com. Like the printed versions, the first web version was a relatively simple chronological listing on a series of pages with different date ranges. It grew to about a thousand entries, mostly with very brief notes. In September 2008, after Jessica Gore provided an "administration program," I began building what you see now, which is a work in progress. Among the many advantages of the electronic format are ease of writing and revising, changeability of organization, and unlimited indexing to name, keyword, or phrase. Once the scope of the database had reached as far back as prehistory, and, with its numerous themes and searchability, had reached a level of interactivity well beyond a timeline, I renamed it From Cave Paintings to the Internet, and called it an interactive database. Along with the database I continued to draft introductory material from which these remarks evolved. The Outline View was installed in January 2010. In June 2012 it became the main index page of the database, and the more detailed view was named the Expanded View. By opening different outline views in separate windows you can compare eras and themes.
In August 2012 the first database mapping program was installed under the Map View tab, enabling the data to be approached from a geographic perspective. You may map a theme by era and region. After you create a map, if you hold your mouse over an orange pointer you will display the headline of the database entry correlated to that location. Clicking on the pointer will take you to the database entry. In December 2012 maps were added to Expanded Views of individual database entries for which coordinates were recorded. Using the tools provided by Google maps you can reduce or expand the scale of the maps, and also move to different areas on the maps. Maps of different eras and themes can be compared by opening different maps in separate windows. On November 12, 2013 Jessica Gore implemented technology that made it possible for users to limit a search to a specific era within a theme, or a specific theme within an era.
About September 2010 I began writing the interpretive works found under the Narrative and Analysis tab; all are works in progress in various early stages of development, to which I return very infrequently because of the demands of business and other writing projects, and because of the challenge of continuing to construct and improve this database. However, from the unfinished narratives and outlines provided you will see some of my personal interpretations of the data.
On February 8, 2011 From Cave Paintings to the Internet moved to its own domain at historyofinformation.com, and I changed its subtitle from A Chronological and Thematic Database to Chronological and Thematic Studies on the History of Information and Media. At that time I introduced a Dr. Suess-like mascot of the domain: the enigmatic cave drawing called The Sorcerer in the Trois-Freres cave in France, and dated circa 12,000 BCE.
If you have taken the trouble to read this far you will undoubtedly realize that the subject range and time frame of my interests are encyclopedic. As the database surpassed 4000 entries and more than 90 themes, increasingly I felt that it had taken on such a wide scope that From Cave Paintings to the Internet was no longer an appropriate designation. In February 2014 we renamed the overall project simply HistoryofInformation.com, and retired the mascot. Also in February 2014 we launched a new website, BookHistory.net, designed to present the book history material in a more focused, and hopefully more accessible way.
Chronological and Thematic Researches, and their Limitations
Though this project began in printed form, and much of its information derives from books, it has evolved into this dynamic and interactive form far different from the codex, and also different from digital books. 2For a definition of codex, and a discussion of the transition from the manuscript roll to the codex format of manuscript and printed books, see Section 2.B. The Transition from the Roll to the Codex under the "Narrative and Analysis" Tab. This distinctive and evolving form combines features of traditional reference books, such as narratives, bibliographical references, and descriptive annotations, with the advantages of links to additional information, including digital books, articles, images, newsgroups, and videos online, searchability through pre-assigned themes or random keywords, aspects of blogging, and a range, scope and flexibility that would be impossible without the Internet. In contrast to the static printed codex, which can only be revised infrequently, I am continuing to expand, revise, and improve this database as frequently as time permits.
Increasingly, because my style of reading may be reflective of sixteenth or seventeenth century habits, amplified by following hyperlinks, I view this project as a kind of enhanced, publically usable, interactive form of commonplace book. Of course, any kind of personal, selective reading, and especially reading about fast-developing events, such as those occurring in many rapidly evolving fields of science and technology, will inevitably contain significant lacunae, and cannot pretend to express the full expanse or speed of change. Though I am careful to provide documentation through links or references in most entries, and attempt to maintain objectivity, the totality of what is provided is inevitably a personal, subjective view.
Because of its historical approach, numerous precursors to aspects of this project over the centuries, may, of course, be found within this database itself, particularly through the Indexing and Searching Information, Organization of Information, and Chronicles & Timelines themes. You will find links to themes at the end of each entry. If you click on a theme after an entry you will see a timeline based on that theme alone. You can, of course, access the database by era, and you can switch back and forth between eras and themes. By following certain themes in the database you can trace the development of specific media; following others may help you trace interrelationships between media, or help you approach the history of information from other viewpoints.
Using the search box in the upper right corner of each screen you can search the database by any keyword, name, phrase or search combination. The keyword search may be the most efficient way to locate specific information or specific people. With the pull-down menu to the right of the search box at the advanced search screen you can adjust the search to find ANY word, to find ALL words, or to find EXACT phrase. To determine which database entries mention a specific year type that year number in quotation marks in the search box.
In order to follow the development of concepts or technologies from their origins, and to offer thought-provoking associations, I define themes loosely. To make some themes more accessible to historical treatment I sometimes combine related themes. For example, I combined Internet and Networking in order to trace this theme back to the first road networks in the ancient world, to railroads, to the telegraph lines that followed railroad lines, to telephone networks, up the network of networks that is the Internet. I also combined Social Media and Wikis to show a longer history for both topics. By January 2012 I felt that eBooks had become a significant enough factor in publishing, and that sufficient information about them had accumulated in the database to add a new theme for eBook / Digital Book History. Occasionally an entry may be accidentally indexed to an inappropriate theme. If you notice such a mistake, or any other mistake, please email me.
References Used and Cited
Although this is my individual project, I could not accomplish it without thousands of physical books on the history of information in my growing personal library, access to digital books and journal articles, and the work of countless contributors to websites. Though this project documents the history of information in all its forms, I remain an exponent of the well-edited and hopefully also well-produced physical book. Unless otherwise stated or linked, references to scholarly works or secondary sources in my entries are from physical books, usually in my possession. Sometimes I also have the primary work involved, or a physical facsimile of it, or I had the primary work in my possession temporarily as a dealer in rare books and manuscripts. Occasionally I consult physical books in institutional libraries, but efficiency requires that I maintain most of the references I need in my possession or have access to them on the Internet. I also benefit from online discussions on the exlibris electronic discussion list of the Rare Book and Manuscript Section (RBMS) of the Association of College Research Libraries (ACRL). To the more than 100,000 contributors to the Wikipedia I am especially grateful. Throughout the database users will find many quotations from, and innumerable hyperlinks to, the Wikipedia and a myriad of other websites. After the Wikipedia the source I cite most frequently is The New York Times. As with quotations from printed books, when I quote from a website I do not include footnotes within the web page, such as the considerable number of footnotes that may be found in certain Wikipedia articles. These footnotes can, of course, be accessed by clicking on the link. Conversely, when I quote from physical or digital books I sometimes add links when I feel that they may be useful, and I have also been known to add links to quotations I take from websites. I give dates of access for sites from which I have taken quotations both as a reference point for the date the database entry was written or revised, and to provide a means of finding the information in the Internet Archive if the site from which the quotation was taken closes or changes.
From the standpoint of selecting sources for links the Wikipedia and The New York Times have the advantage of presumed longevity. As we all know, websites frequently come and go, and it is time-consuming to have to replace dead links in a project as complex as this. But within the millions of articles in the Wikipedia articles sometimes are divided or moved, making old links disfunctional. I would appreciate your reporting broken or inaccurate links to any source when you find them in the database. That the Wikipedia is the product of so many contributors, and is of uneven quality, sometimes raises concern among scholars. This caution should be applied to many sources of information, in print and online. While I am careful to cite my sources accurately, in order to build a database of this scope I work under the assumption that not all of the information or references can be verified. Paraphrasing a statement made by the Renaissance scholar-printer Aldus Manutius in his preface to his edition of Theocritus (1495/96), I believe that publishing “something is better than nothing,” and that my primary task is to set down the information in useful form, to be improved later, if possible. I also believe that a published text may find many correctors, with the difference that the Internet compounds the problem by the speed at which it spreads true or false information. Whenever I find inaccuracies in From Cave Paintings to the Internet I correct them. Please report errors that you find.
For this project I am using an abbreviated form of bibliographic citation, but there should be sufficient detail to enable users to identify the sources. Those familiar with the classic reference book by Carter and Muir, Printing and the Mind of Man (1967), may notice citations of that work occasionally in the database. Published in the print-centric world that existed at the beginning of my antiquarian bookselling career, Printing and the Mind of Man was highly influential on my development as a bookseller and bibliographer. At that time, when computers were mainframes and computing had little direct influence on everyday life, I had the ambition to revise that work or to write a similar book from a more “modern” perspective. Instead of doing that, some entries in the database that correspond to entries in Printing and the Mind of Man reflect my “take” on Carter and Muir's choices of texts influential on the development of Western civilization. Certain other database entries, which concern works influential on both Eastern and Western civilization in manuscript, print or digital form, might be viewed as alternative selections, expansions or updates of the concept originally developed in the historic and highly influential Printing and the Mind of Man exhibition (1963) and in the 1963 and 1967 books by which it remains known. Because this is an open-ended database, unconstrained by the limitations of an exhibition or a book, my choices range widely.
For a few years my son Max added images to entries; then he stopped because of a shortage of time. In May 2012 my daughter Alexandra began adding images and captions. In 2013 my wife Trish became responsible for images and captions. When you see “view larger” after a caption, clicking on the image will bring up a larger version. Sometimes clicking on an uncaptioned image will have the same result. From time to time I comment on an image within an annotation.
Increasingly, digital facsimiles of manuscripts and rare books are being made available online. Whenever I am aware of a digital facsimile or a digital edition of an item discussed I provide a link to it. Of course, facsimiles can never be truly identical to the original, and there are many reasons why consulting the original should be preferred. But for the casual student, or for the many without access to the original manuscript or printing, a facsimile may provide an acceptable substitute. The scholar’s challenge to is to know when the original--not just a facsimile--must be consulted. (This section was last revised on February 26, 2014.)
Why Have I Undertaken This Project?
Anyone who reviews this database in detail, and appreciates its scope, might very well wonder why I have undertaken this project which is, of course, impossible to complete. Not only is the scope of this project beyond the reach of an individual if comprehensiveness is expected, but the very notion of completeness may inapplicable. Completeness implies some kind of predefined form; instead the database continues to evolve into new forms. Having written and published a few conventional printed books which could not be revised without a new printing, one of things I like most about this project is that it can be used while it is under construction, and I am free to revise it and expand it as time permits.
Primarily this database is an expression of the widest range of my historical curiosity- a way to unify many of my interests into a research source that will, I hope, become increasingly useful. The process of constructing it continues to stretch my intellectual horizons. Could there possibly be a better project for a confirmed generalist? As has often been said, we are presently experiencing one of the most significant and dramatic transitional phases in the evolution of information and media. The transition from a world in which information was primarily created, recorded, distributed and stored in physical form on paper to a world in which most information is produced, created, distributed and stored in digital form on the Internet has occurred mostly within my lifetime. I was born in 1945, just after World War II ended, and soon after the first general purpose electronic digital computer, the ENIAC, became operational. I distinctly remember the first time I heard about an electronic computer in November, 1952, watching Walter Cronkite on television showing the UNIVAC predicting the election of President Eisenhower. I was then seven years old. The ongoing dramatic changes in media, which all of us have experienced since the personal computer and the Internet, caused me to wonder how all these changes came about. Then one question led to another, and another.... The more I delve into the history of media the more complex some of the historical problems appear- problems that may be approached from a multitude of perspectives. I suspect that it will require the passage of considerably more years before historians can look back at our rapidly changing time with genuine objectivity. One of the goals of this database is to provide raw material for histories or other scholarship that may be written now and also in the future.
Because my initial preoccupation was with tracking developments in computing, networking and telecommunications that led to the Internet, users will find the database coverage of those and related topics relatively extensive, through about the year 2000. By that date the basic structure and features that we associate with the Internet were mostly in place, and since a project like this focuses primarily on "firsts", I have not tried to document most of the ever more rapidly developing refinements since then. That would definitely be beyond the capability of an individual. However, I have tried to outline selected new technologies such as tablet computers and developments in topics like social media, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, ebooks, ecommerce and many other aspects, as well as their historical precursors.
Having been generally interested in the history of information and media for most of my sixty-eight years, and habitually taking an historical approach to learning and writing, I challenged myself to use the tools presently available to record an increasingly wide-ranging view of the history of information and media from the perspective of our rapidly changing and most exciting time. By obviating the necessity of travel or conformation to the opening hours of research institutions the Internet makes this project feasible. eCommerce makes it possible for me to build the extensive personal library of physical books needed for this project. The fluid structure of the database, and its composition in discrete components, enables me to work on this project part time. I should add that the continuing process of self-education involved in creating this database gives me great intellectual satisfaction. I also look foward to developing new and exciting ways of presenting the data. It is my pleasure to create and share as a public service this growing interactive record of my ongoing voyage through the history of information and media. Your comments are welcome. Bon voyage! (This section was last revised on December 31, 2013.)back to table of contents
Resources for Book and Media History
For the formal study of book history in an increasingly digital world we are fortunate to have a selection of educational programs including the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, and the newer Rare Books and Special Collections program at the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Librarianship Specialization at the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University Bloomington, the California Rare Book School at UCLA, the Watts Program for the History of the Book at Brown University, and the Center for the Study of Books and Media at Princeton. At the Corcoran College of Art + Design there is a seminar on "The History of the Western Book" and its online project, the Corcoran Book History blog. At the University of Saskatchewan there is an innovative program and website on The History and Future of the Book. Other programs include The Centre for the Study of the Book at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the Center for Manuscript and Print Studies at the University of London, The Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh, the Institut d'Histoire du Livre, at the Musée de l’Imprimerie de Lyon, France, and the Australian and New Zealand Rare Book Summer School in Melbourne. The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) has over 1000 members in over 20 countries, including professors of literature, historians, librarians, publishing professionals, sociologists, bibliophiles, classicists, booksellers, art historians, reading instructors, and independent scholars. Its website provides an invaluable collection of links related to book history.
The Reading Experience Database (RED), 1450-1945 contains valuable listings of Selected Works on the History and Practice of Reading, Selected Works on Theories of Reading, and Reading in Wartime. Supporting scholarship on the history of books, printing, and libraries, Book History Online, the worldwide database for scholarship on the history of the book, was established in 1997 at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague. Regrettably for independent scholars such as myself, at the end of 2012 this previously free online resource was privatized and became accessible only by a rather expensive subscription. A more specialized but free online resource is the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. This contains the descriptions of more than 60,000 medieval manuscripts produced before 1600. Other notable digital resources concerning medieval manuscripts and libraries include the Pecia blog. For fifteenth century printing there is the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue maintained by the British Library. Currently it lists just under 30,000 items. This and the English Short Title Catalogue, also maintained by the British Library, which lists over 460,000 items published in the British Isles and America between 1473 and 1800, represent bibliographical reference works far more widely accessible, more comprehensive, and more easily searched than they could be in printed form.
For the history and traditions of book collecting, and the ongoing process of forming and maintaining and preserving libraries of rare books and manuscripts, there are numerous clubs and societies, of which The Grolier Club of New York is the most distinguished in the United States. The Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies links the different American and Canadian book collecting clubs. A manuscript collector and dealer’s group is The Manuscript Society. Because of long and illustrious historical tradition of physical information there are hundreds, and perhaps thousands of institutional libraries around the world that hold rare books and manuscripts. There are also numerous museums and institutional libraries that hold recorded information prior to the codex, such as stone inscriptions, cuneiform tablets, and papyrus rolls.
In spite of the relative fragility of papyrus, the Egyptian desert provided a comparatively hospitable environment for their preservation. As a result of extensive archaeological research mainly since the 1890s, there are about 45,000 papyri in six institutional libraries and museums in the United States, and numerous papyri preserved in other countries. It has been estimated that there are about 500,000 unpublished papyri. Bagnall, Early Christian Books in Egypt (2009), 17 cites a figure "in the range of 1 million to 1.5 million" for the "total of known numbers of papyri in all collections." Of course, many papyri are fragmentary.The Tebtunis Papyri, a collection of more than 30,000 papyrus fragments preserved at The Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, represent the largest collection of papyrus texts in the Americas. Twenty-one institutions cooperate in development of the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS), a collections-based repository hosting information about and images of papyrological materials, such as papryi, ostraca, and wood tablets, located in collections around the world.
For the history of paper and book production in the Muslim world the al-Ghazali website, maintained by Muhammad Hozien, contains valuable references and PDF downloads, sources for Arabic paleography, and a listing of important catalogues of Arabic/Islamic Manuscripts. (This section was last revised on January 24, 2014.)back to table of contents
Resources for the History of Computing, Digital Information, Information Graphics and Digital Humanities
Organizations and institutions concerning the history of computing and the Internet are far more limited in number. Some of the most significant are the Charles Babbage Institute in Minneapolis, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, the Science Museum in London, and the IEEE Computer Society. Since 1976 the IEEE has published IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. For the history of media--film, radio, and television-- there is the International Association for Media and History. For the history of information management and information science there are various useful websites such as that of Professor Michael Buckland.
For digital humanities there are Interdisciplinary Sciences Reviews edited by Willard McCarty, the Humanist Discussion Group, “an international online seminar on humanities computing and the digital humanities” also edited by McCarty, and The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations.
For artificial intelligence the Asssociation for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence website, aitopics.org, offers a very wide range of information, including much of historical value.
For machine translation or computational linguistics the website of John Hutchins includes many useful historical articles, and an immense Machine Translation Archive compiled by Hutchins consisting of over 10,400 items in December 2013.
An exceptionally comprehensive and useful timeline for the history of information graphics is Milestones in the History of Thematic Cartography, Statistical Graphics, and Data Visualization. An illustrated chronology of innovations by Michael Friendly and Daniel J. Denis. In 2010 WolframAlpha produced a useful but brief Timeline of Systematic Data and the Development of Computable Knowledge. (This section was last revised on December 18, 2013.)back to table of contents