Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, September 02, 2007


Alex Wright’s book starts off as many do, indicating that there has been a lot of crap written about the promises and perils of the digital age. However, Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages (Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2007) turns out to be not another entry in the genre of texts worrying about the dangers of information technologies, but it is a rather straightforward and useful history; Wright states that his “aim . . . is to resist the tug of mystical techno-futurism and approach the story of the information age by looking squarely backward” (p. 3). Glut is not a scholarly study, but it is a handy review of the evolution of humanity’s approach to ordering and harnessing increasing amounts of information.

Wright reminds us of just how much information we are processing today, noting that we now write “more than five exabytes worth of recorded information per year: documents, e-mail messages, television shows, radio broadcasts, Web pages, medical records, spreadsheets, presentations, and books like this one. That is more than 50, 000 times the number of words stored in the Library of Congress, or more than the total number of words ever spoken by human beings” (p. 6). Instead of using this as a platform for lamenting how we no longer can control our own lives or our place in the world, Wright seeks to explain how we have gotten to this point and what we have been doing along the way to control the information.

After this orientation to the problem at hand, we are launched on a breezy and interesting panorama of information over the centuries. We learn about the quipu, the Incas means of recording by using knotted ropes; the emergence of writing, then libraries and archives in the ancient world; technological breakthroughs such as the codex and paper; new document forms supporting commerce and government; the impact of printing; the creation of encyclopedias; and we read about pioneers and visionaries in information processing and control such as Linnaeus, Buffon, Otlet, Vannevar Bush, Eugene Garfield, Ted Nelson, and Tim Berners-Lee.

The contribution of Glut to the literature of the information age is that it provides an easy to read description of the modern era’s antecedents. This is a book that provides a good context for the evolution of recordkeeping systems, and it could be adapted for use in teaching archivists and other records professionals; it also could be used by archivists to help them reflect on how much information they are now responsible for and how they have sought to control it. At times Wright makes sweeping generalizations, but while experts in the area may criticize these they also provoke some thought about just what is going on with information and its technologies. For example, Wright writes, “Twenty years after Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press, a bare handful of people in Germany and France had ever seen a printed book. Less than 20 years after its invention, the World Wide Web has touched billions” (p. 229). This kind of assessment can be easily dissected and critiqued, but it still generates some reflection that can be useful for understanding the information age.