- Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages
Simply put, this is one of the best books of its kind I have ever read—more coherent than Matthew Battles’s Library: An Unquiet History(2003), more sophisticated than Frederick Andrew Lerner’s The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing [End Page 221] to the Computer Age(1998), and far more interesting than Sidney L. Jackson’s classic (and tedious) Libraries and Librarianship in the West: A Brief History(1974). Alex Wright has crafted a narrative that must be considered at the very least a tour de force. Wright, who holds a library degree, characterizes himself as an “information architect.” I am not sure what that is, but I do know he is one heck of a writer.
Many topics Wright addresses are well known to library historians: the Irish monks who saved civilization with their industrious manuscript copying and Gutenberg’s impact on the history of the book and the European culture within which the book thrived. Most library historians are familiar with the influence of Diderot’s Encyclopédieon the eighteenth-century quest for universal knowledge; the various classification schemes of Jefferson, Melvil Dewey, and Ranganathan (although I am not sure how many would recall the seventeenth-century English bishop John Wilkins’s contribution to classification theory); cuneiform; the codex; and the medieval cloister. But Wright is pushing his intellectual brush across a much broader canvas. How much, for example, is known about E. O. Wilson’s evolutionary biological theories of communication based on the meme and epigenetic rules? Wright takes readers on an amazing ride that encompasses theories of evolutionary biology and their application to how information is shared between and among species, all fit within a smoothly written narrative. Wright’s introductory chapters lay the groundwork for a fascinating historical journey over the centuries as humans constantly grapple with new forms of organizing and explaining their world.
At the end, of course, comes the Internet. Wright spends a great deal of time explaining what Paul Otlet was up to with his Mundaneumand how Vannevar Bush’s Memex machine helped influence later thinkers in the 1950s, such as the young Eugene Garfield with his development of citation analysis. Internet theorists such as Tim Berners-Lee, Doug Engelbart, and Ted Nelson receive their due as Wright brings his history up to the present. Of particular interest is Wright’s assertion that the social networking characteristics of the contemporary Internet are nothing more than a new way for people to speak to each other, something humans have been doing for thousands and thousands of years.
Wright’s narrative is a masterful combination of modern scientific theory set within a traditional library history framework. It is highly recommended. [End Page 222]