A bibliography that's Too Big to Know

David Weinberger of <a href="Everything Is Miscellaneous">Everything is Miscellaneous (review) fame is working on a new book.

It's going to be called Too Big to Know and over the last year or two he's blogged quite a bit of the thought processes that have gone into the writing of the book.

Here's a brief sort-of description of what the book's going to be about from way back in December 2009:

The opening looks at the history of information overload, going back to the book Future Shock, and pointing to the coining of "sensory overload" in 1950. I look at how pathetically small was the amount of info that seemed threatening to us back then. And I point at research (especially by Ann Blair and Richard Yeo) on information overload in the 16th-18th centuries. (Yes, I have the Seneca quote as well). All this is in service of the point that information overload has changed now that it's gone exponentially exponential [thanks for the link, Linda Stone] and is so much a part of our ordinary context.

Next, I think I want to gesture at one way of understanding the change: We now face "knowledge overload." But, the point of the book is that knowledge is no longer what it once was, so I don't want to point to ordinary cases of knowing things; I fundamentally disagree with the idea that knowledge is to information as information is to data. So, I'm thinking that I might here use an example that will show the reader that this is a real, concrete issue, and it is not exactly the issue that she probably assumes it is from the fact that I'm talking about "knowledge."

In any case, he's starting to approach the end of the writing process and he's graciously decided to share his bibliography with us in a Google Docs spreadsheet. The bibliography itself is here.

It's an incredibly interesting bibliography and I can't wait to read the book itself. It's also interesting to note that he does cite some of the usual science suspects like Jean Claude Bradley and Jennifer Ouellette but I admit to being a bit surprised not to see a few more.

Quibbling aside, the bibliography is full of interesting stuff and is well worth checking out.

At the end of the post, Weinberger does raise a question, although not explicitly:

I'm planning on not including it in the book itself, although I'm open to Tim's advice. In any case, I will put it up at the TooBigToKnow website (which currently consists of nothing but posts tagged here). If you want to see the current version of the bibliography, it's available as a Google Docs spreadsheet here. I'm thinking that making it available as a spreadsheet online makes it more useful. Also, I plan on annotating it.

In other words, is it worth including the bibliography in the book itself if it's also going to be available in a possibly annotated version online?

I have a couple of opinions on this:

  • Most of all, YES. The online version of the bibliography may not be preserved online in the same way as the version that's part of the book itself. In 50 or 100 or 500 years, will someone who has the book (print or e-) be able to find the bibliography easily? Maybe, maybe not. But the librarian in me says I'd rather they be together in some form for the sake of those people in the far future looking at the history of what we thought about the internet.
  • I recognize that making the bibliography available serves as a kind of advertisement for the book itself and that's a good thing. But I don't see that as separate from having the bibliography in the book itself. Of course, making an annotated bibliography as an enticement to purchase would be even better.
  • Once again, speaking in my librarian persona, when I'm in a bookstore trying to decide whether or not to buy a non-fiction book, I'll often glance at the bibliography to see if the author refers to the kinds of things I would expect for the topic. Weinberger clearly does and that's great, but it'd be nice to be able to see that in the real or virtual bookstore as well.
  • Once again, in my librarian persona, I often use bibliographies at the back of books as collection development tools. In other words, if Weinberger uses cool stuff to write a great book, maybe people here at York might want to read the same cool stuff. Having the bibliography as part of the book itself makes it easier for me to note the cool stuff and remember to order it. At that point, having it online is a bit easier for the mechanical part of the process of checking to see if we already have the books and ordering them if we don't.

And I can't wait to read the book when it comes out!

2 responses so far

  • Thanks for the pushback, John, as well as for the nice things you say.

    First, it was fun to read what I'd said the book was going to be about. I was still under the influence of a different book I had been working on, one about the history of information (which may have been obviated by the new Glieck book). The book actually isn't too much like what I thought it was going to be.

    Second, although it's probably too late, I'm curious about (and disturbed by) the usual suspects I missed when talking about science. (The science chapter turned out to be the longest, at 13K words, and is not nearly long enough. Damn books and their imposition of limits! 🙂

    Third, my editor does not yet know about my proposal to skip the bib in the printed book. He may well agree with you. And FWIW, my "Misc" book did not include a printed bib.

    Fourth, your points in favor of including it are all good. Two things hold me back, though. First, I'd have to write a 300+ entry bibliography. Well, I have a crude javascript for turning the spreadsheet into bib entries, but it would require a _lot_ of cleanup. Second, because it's so easy to poke around on the Net, the bib is maybe twice as large as it would have been in the old days. It includes lots of stuff that I used in passing. So, I'm not sure it's as useful as a traditional bib. For psychological reasons, I don't like coming up with lists of "worthwhile" entries, though. So, I'm not convinced the bib is all that useful except as a mechanism for looking up an item you're interested in ... in which case, the linked electronic version is way more useful than the printed version.

    As for the longevity of paper over electrons: The relevant lifetime of this book is certainly less than the lifetime of the sites I'm sticking the bib at. Besides, there's nothing in the bib that isn't in the endnotes, I believe, and the endnotes will be in the printed version.

    To sum up: I'm not sure. Thanks for further unsettling me.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Thanks for the comment, David. I appreciate you taking the time to drop by.

    As far as usual suspects are concerned, I guess the two people I was most expecting to see on your bibliography but didn't are probably Cameron Neylon and Michael Nielsen, and maybe Peter Murray-Rust. If you google "Cameron Neylon filter failure" you'll get a sense of what I mean. Of course, not having read your chapter (yet!) I can't really say what I think you're actually missing, only what I think you might be missing.

    Your Harvard affiliation probably gets you access to something like EndNote or Refworks or Zotero. And I'm sure the Mendeley people would be thrilled to help you. You can probably fairly easily import your spreadsheet into one of those software systems and then use those to spit out a reasonably well formatted bibliography. I'm sure there's a librarian somewhere around Harvard that'll be happy to give you a hand.

    Preservation and such, I wasn't really even thinking about print vs. electronic per se. I'm pretty sure your book will exist in both print and ebook formats for a very long time (although I guess neither of us will be around in 500 years to test that one out...) but I'm not quite as certain about the bibliography in it's separate form, of course, not being sure of where you've deposited it does make a difference. I guess my point is, looking far off into the future, even if both entities continue to exist in some probably online form, the odds of being able to usefully connect them will be higher if they are already usefully connected as part of the same document.

    As for the useful like of your book -- like anything about the internet, in one sense it has a fairly short useful like span. On the other hand, as a document which represents how people think about the internet in 2011, well, it'll always have a useful life in that sense. I don't see why scholars 100 or 500 years from now won't consider it a primary document in the study of early thought about information overload.

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