Jacopo Barbari - Portrait of Fra Luca Pacioli with a Student
Renaissance scholars knew a thing or two about combating information overload PHOTO: Jacopo Barbari - Portrait of Fra Luca Pacioli with a Student

“My son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh” — Ecclesiastes 12:12

Information overload is nothing new. 

It has been around for millennia. And while we may be impressed by the extreme rise of information, such as IBM’s prediction that “the amount of information created will double every 11 hours,” much of that ‘information’ is generated by sensors, devices and business systems collecting data for a variety of scientific, business and engineering purposes.

No, the overload that the proliferation of the internet, mobile devices and ubiquitous cloud services has brought on is crushing, but in relative terms it may not be unprecedented. 

Nothing New Under the Sun

Consider a scholar living in the 1400s. Prior to the invention of the printing press, the largest libraries in Western Europe had — at most — several hundred books. In those days, a scholar could literally encompass the entire corpus of knowledge available to them, in a lifetime. But by 1550, approximately 3 million books were printed every year! Think about the life-altering shock such information overload would have on a scholar during that age.

Or consider a businessman living in the early 1800s, prior to the invention of the telegraph and telephone. In that age, the speed of communications was limited to the speed of a horse, or later, a train.  

However, within the space of only a few years, information could be transmitted over great distances in real-time, vastly increasing the amount (and pace) of available information. Businessman W.E. Dodge provides a good example from 1868 of the overload angst the invention of the telegraph brought on:

The merchant goes home after a day of hard work and excitement to a late dinner … when he is interrupted by a telegram from London …. The businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump. The poor merchant has no other way in which to work to secure a living for his family.”

These examples demonstrate the immense shock experienced by the first generation living during a quantum increase in information production, delivery and processing.  

Guess what? We are that first generation for the current era of overload. One brought on by the intersection of near-universal high-speed internet connectivity, cheap mobile devices with fast processors and cheap memory storage.

Information Management Technologies – Then and Now

“What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9

One of the best ways to deal with new problems starts with seeing how similar problems were dealt with in the past. What can our generation learn from another transitional period of information growth: the Renaissance?

Ann Blair, professor of history at Harvard and author of the book, Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, explores the methods scholars used during the Renaissance to deal with information overload. Many of the methods Blair describes have modern counterparts being used to help deal with contemporary information overload.  

Stealing From Renaissance Scholars

Some of the most popular and successful methods Blair highlights include the following: 

  • Note taking
  • Finding aids
  • Compilations
  • Curation

A short look at how these were developed and how they are used today tells us something about what we can learn from history. 

Note Taking

During the Renaissance, scholars created personal journals (called ‘commonplace books’) as a way of collecting, organizing and retaining interesting information from many different sources. Initially, writing a commonplace book entailed manually taking notes, i.e. copying text from one book into the journal.  

Later, when books became cheap enough, it was often easier to cut and paste sections from the source directly into the journals — from whence we got the term.

Modern cloud services like Evernote and OneNote represent modern-day versions of the commonplace book. These tools allow us to aggregate important web pages, photos, videos, documents and notes in a single source. They also provide digital versions of 'Renaissance-class features,’ such cutting and pasting text.

Finding Aids

Many well-known technologies for finding information in books are ancient inventions. The table of contents, the alphabetical index and grouping text into chapters were all used prior to the Renaissance.  

Alphabetization has been used to organize information at least since the 3rd century BCE, when library scribes created an alphabetized catalog to organize the vast number of scrolls preserved in the Great Library of Alexandria.

Other Renaissance era techniques for finding information include bookmarking and dog-earing pages, two methods of highlighting pages for reference later.

Today, text management software routinely enables the automatic creation of tables of content and indices, as well as new technologies such as search, hyperlinks, tags and metadata as ways of quickly locating interesting and relevant information. 

Compilations

Another way to head off information overload is to reduce the amount of information you need to consume to understand a subject.  

The encyclopedia was the Renaissance's answer to this problem. The earliest encyclopedias in the west appeared in the 16th century, as a way to cope with the information explosion brought on by the printing press, the re-discovery of ‘lost’ texts brought to Europe from the Levant and the swell of plants and animals discovered during the Age of Exploration.  

Other compilations of information include the thesaurus, the dictionary, the concordance and the florilegium (compilation of plants), all classical inventions.

Even with the ability to quickly find information today using finding aids such as search and hyperlinks, compilations of information remain popular, though most are now in electronic format. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica (first published in 1768 and last printed in 2010) remains, although now only in digital format.  

Other modern reference compilations include Wikipedia, WebMD and the Library of Congress’ site of Legal Topics.

Curation and Recommendations

A final way to keep information overload in check is to limit information consumption to only those items that are most important, interesting or relevant. One way to do this is to rely on a curator: someone who gathers, synthesizes and recommends information relevant to a particular topic.  

Curation has many forms and several of them became popular during the Renaissance. For example, the explosion of books begat the book review, which first appeared in periodicals during the 17th century. Every high school graduate is familiar with the book review (a la Cliff Notes), which imparts the core knowledge contained in a book while saving the time and effort needed to reach the entire volume.

Modern forms of curation for news include Flipboard, as well as posts from LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Goodreads and Amazon book recommendations also provide crowdsourced recommendation sources. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

One thing we do know: the amount of available information will only grow. And vendors will continue touting new technologies like artificial intelligence as a panacea for the mounting information deluge. 

But before we get too enamored with the new technology, remember there is nothing new under the sun. New technology may provide helps us with efficiency and scale, but in looking for real solutions, learn from history what has worked … and what hasn’t.