Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Five notable books on the history of information

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

Her latest book is Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age.

With Eve Gerber at The Browser, Blair discussed five top books on the history of information, including:
The Information Master
by Dr Jacob Soll

How government uses information is the subject of Jacob Soll’s The Information Master. Please tell us about this book.

Jake Soll’s work is focused on the information management system set up by Louis XIV’s chief minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in late 17th century France. Soll studies Colbert’s accumulation of archival documents and manuscripts, and how Colbert managed the paperwork of an increasing bureaucracy, as well as the royal library passed down to him by the previous chief minister Jules Mazarin.

Colbert integrated multiple kinds of information – manuscripts, letters and books. He created this trove to serve the interests of the state. So when Louis XIV wanted to take possession of a city on France’s northern border, for example, he could ask Colbert to find medieval documentation or precedents that supported the monarch’s claim to the piece of territory he coveted. It was a secret information system for the use of the king yet it was elaborate and well maintained and integrated books with archival material. This grand information system was a great innovation but when Colbert died no one took up the challenge of maintaining and perpetuating it. Information systems can be fragile that way.

One of Soll’s most interesting points is how much movement there was between different areas of information management. He attributes Colbert’s aptitude for information management to his mercantile background. Merchants used bookkeeping to keep their accounts in order. Colbert drew on his background in mercantile note-taking but also hired scholars trained by Maurist historians, members of a French Benedictine order, who were expert at managing libraries and medieval manuscripts. So Colbert drew on both mercantile and scholarly traditions of note-taking to help him devise his information management system.

Soll was recently honoured with a MacArthur Fellowship. How has he pioneered new inquiries? Is this area a fertile field for the history of knowledge?

History develops as a discipline by asking new questions of sources that were well known and by drawing attention to new sources. Soll does both of those things. Historians have long used archives – since the early modern period, in fact – but they have mostly worried about what they can get from the archives rather than about how archives were formed, maintained, classified and made available. But Soll’s work is part of a new kind of history that focuses on how the archives were consciously formed as a source of argumentation for state action. Early modern archiving was very sophisticated and also respectful of the sources. Although they tightly controlled access to the archives, early modern archivists kept all kinds of potentially incriminating documents that they didn’t tamper with or destroy. So these early archives are astounding troves of history.

I hope the history of archives gets a lot more attention. Jacob Soll is doing cutting-edge work in this area. Another colleague, Randolph Head, is working on a comparative history of archives in early modern Europe that promises to show us how church archives, state archives, family archives and commercial archives all developed techniques to deal with similar problems.
Read about another book Blair tagged.

The Page 99 Test: Ann Blair's Too Much to Know.

--Marshal Zeringue