Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Impressive futurism; misleading book titles

Pretty good call:

In 1883 [Charles Ammi] Cutter wrote a futuristic essay entitled "The Buffalo Public Library in 1983". imagining what a library might look like in 100 years, he envisioned readers sitting at desks equipped with "a little keyboard" through which they could connect with a central electronic catalog, ordering books form the stacks by punching in a call nmber. He even foresaw networks of libraries connected by a "fonographic foil" that would enable them to communicate telegraphically, accessing each others' collections so readily that "all the libraries in the country...are practically one library".

From Glut, by Alex Wright. Cutter was the inventor of the Library of Congress cataloging system. The practically one library bit is here.

On the whole I was disappointed by this book, which I was hoping would have some insight into the nature of thinking under conditions of infoglut. What it turned out to be is a history of information classification systems through the ages, from Sumerians to the web. Given that, it was pretty interesting. The author has a degree in library science and it shows. The treatment of Ted Nelson, which is the part of this history that I know best, is reasonably informed and fair, and he had some interesting things to say about the historical tensions between hierarchical and bottom-up organization.

Actually, this is an excellent book except for the title, which is misleading.

It's funny because I recently read another excellent book on a completely different topic: Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner, and had the same reaction. It was an frighteningly insightful memoir of Hitler's rise to power and how the educated, well-intentioned classes in Germany were totally paralyzed. The title in no way reflects the contents -- it should have been called Capitulating to Hitler.

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