I plan to explore the materiality behind knowledge construction by analyzing key technologies from the advent of the most basic inscription tools, to the technologies being created to sift through and rank the torrents of information and data that are continually generated today. What kind of information was being inscribed with the earliest writing tools? What kind of information hierarchies are we (willing or not) participants in today? Are the technologies I am researching products of the cultural attitude towards information production, collection, and access, or the reason for the attitude itself? 

I will start by looking at the earliest technologies used to inscribe information, and how the earliest forms of writing utensil — styli — determined what kind, and how much, information was captured. How did the material realities of using a styli and a writing surface influence the type of information being inscribed? 

Moving forward in time, with the advent of the printing press, the generation and manipulation of knowledge centered around duplication and dissemination. How did this new technology change the relationships between information producers and collectors? With this tremendous growth in printed materials, a new desperation to categorize and rank information took hold. There was now a crisis to dissect “knowledge” into myriad categories based on endless concepts of the structure of information itself. From this frenzy emerged categorization standards including disciplines, subjects, and headings coupled with the nascent concept of a record placeholder for an actual resource. This physical placeholder for another physical object led to the generation of physical catalogs in information centers. What does it mean to distance oneself from the actual physical object to help find the actual object? 

Because categorization is inherently subjective, standardization of the presentation of information became crucial. Librarians were trained in specific, “universally legible,” handwriting standards to fit crucial information about a specific resource onto a 3×5” paper surface, the card of the card catalog, which were being generated with a physical cutting machine. This size dictated the subsequent manufacturing of standard sized shelving units and cabinets to hold the cards. The card catalog was eventually (and oftentimes begrudgingly) adapted for the age of electrical computing. Descriptive standards were generated to translate the information written by hand on a physical piece of paper to machine readable code. 

The earliest computerized catalogs tried to recreate the same “browsing” experience possible with physical card catalogs. As the capabilities of the technologies increased, librarians found new ways to make cataloging information available, and ideas of type of access, types of searching, and how people interact with the catalog were being discussed. As these search capabilities grew, the focus of librarianship morphed into information-guides in a new way: the concept of information literacy. The issue now became how to help users refine their searches to pick the most useful, valuable, accurate information. Because of the complexity and abundance of available information, the information seeker is often not the true agent of their own search.

Algorithms added another layer to this question of agency and information seeking. Like the biased classification systems established in the 19th century, the bias of programmers and coders is influencing the way and the type of information users access. With search terms becoming marketable items themselves, we have an additional factor to consider when navigating information: is this actually the information I am seeking, or the information someone has paid for me to see first? 

Technologies: 

  • Styli
  • Printing Press
  • Card cutter for card catalog
  • Electrical computing
  • OPACS: Dynix software
  • Search Engines
  • Algorithms

Dates / Events: 

1841 – Antonio Panizzi publishes his work “91 Rules for Compilation of the Catalogue” 

1876 – First meeting of the American Library Association where crucial decisions (like the standard size of an index card) are made

1897 – Library of Congress establishes its classification system designating 21 classes for dividing “all” knowledge 

1968 – MARC (Ma-chine Readable Cataloging) standard is first introduced to translate physical card catalogs via electrical computing

2006 – The word “Google” is added to Miriam Webster dictionary as a verb. 

2011 – Occupy (Wall Street) Library tents around the country develop their own systems of classification

 

Possible ideas for the rest of my events (pending more research!) 

~1980’s – First portable e-book (the US Military’s “Personal Electronic Aid to Maintenance”)

Music Genome Project announcement

SEO: an event that notes the optimization (and monetization) of search terms