Alphabetical Order

Have I told you how much I love James Gleick’s The Information? If I haven’t, I find it hard to believe. There haven’t been many conversations in which I didn’t at least mention it since I stumbled upon it (and I mean that literally, I was in a bookstore, not on the web) in March. It’s on my Facebook page and on my LinkedIn book list. I’ve given countless copies. I now follow Gleick on Twitter and just posted my first comment on his blog — oh, and I also (through Divine luck) will hear him speak at Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival at the end of the month. Yikes, I think I’m a groupie.

But let me tell you why.  The Information covers so many of the subjects that have fascinated me over the years, it’s as if Gleick’s been inside my head all this time, and wrote his tome just for me. Thank you, Mr. Gleick.

I cannot begin to sum up his 500+ page history in a blog post (although others have attempted it – hail hail!) So my plan is first, to TELL YOU TO READ IT and then, to bring it up in various posts as I go about the business of expressing myself. After awhile, that should provide a very nice (and subtle) sum up indeed. This first one is about a baffling experience I had 25 years ago that Gleick helped me better understand.

In college, I decided to go to Italy to study in the archives. My subject was, of all things, 18th century Italian opera. Amazingly, what I was looking for, namely letters from any of the prime donne (first ladies of the opera house), was not to be found in US libraries. Trust me, I looked. So, I spent a semester planning, reading history, contacting likely scholar mentors, and learning Italian.

When I arrived in what was to be my home, the small, medieval hill town of Siena, located just outside Florence, I immediately got to work. First, intensive language study; second, intense social life (I was just 24); third, practice in approaching the archives. Facing the mirror, I rehearsed my introductory sentences about being an American, studying 18th century opera, and looking for letters from singers of that period. When I’d got it down, I headed for the local library – a palatial edifice founded in 1759. I didn’t really expect to find anything there, just to try out my inquiry, get the feel of it.

My intro was hardly needed; the arch fellow behind a monolithic desk barely glanced at me as he pointed, raised arm and index finger, at a stack of what I took for card catalogues. Not bad, I thought. Just like home. At the case, I peered at the tiny white cards on each mini-drawer. And here began the mystery that would engulf me for the rest of my six-month trip.

Each card was written in a sloping, curly que hand that looked like it belonged to the first librarian back in the mid-1700s. The drawers were in alphabetical order, but it was unclear of what. Some entries were name of historical figure, some of place, and some of author, with no obvious system denoting why or which. I was baffled. Upon closer inspection, I found there were also no numbers in the top right or left corner: no Dewey Decimal systemEgads – it never occurred to me that Dewey wasn’t ubiquitous! What was going on?

Enter Mr. Gleick. As it turns out, how we organize information is indicative of who we are. Makes sense. And the way we organized things early on had more to do with the things themselves than with the efficiency of the system. In other words, Gleick explains, information was ordered by subject, rather than by alphabetization, which didn’t come into common practice for an astonishingly long time (1613, to be exact), especially for something we take so much for granted.

Humans think about things in terms of their experience of them and bin them up accordingly. (Everything I eat, everything that breathes, everything that grows, etc.) Obviously, this worked quite well for a limited quantity of information used by a small and perhaps congenial group of people. So, it wasn’t until the amount of information increased and a larger, more diverse group was using it that the need for a more efficient cataloguing system arose, which, significantly, would cause information to be separated from experience. Alphabetical order, as Gleick explains, “is unnatural. It forces the user to detach information from meaning; to treat words strictly as character strings.” The Dewey Decimal system takes this a step beyond since the number has nothing whatsoever to do with its correlated subject.

With Gleick’s help, I see now that what I’d found in Siena’s small, but centuries old library was the layering on of alphabetical order over what appeared to be a prevailing subject matter system. And, as I would come to learn from living in Italy, Italians hold on hard to how things are done – no matter how seemingly silly or inefficient. If I had to boil it down, I’d say Italians are the quintessential experience people. No wonder things there look to us “a bit disorganized!”

Back then, as I sat staring into one of the drawers (and by the way, the cards came fully out, which also made me gasp – how easy it would be for them to be stolen or put in the wrong order!), it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never find anything in Italy, after all the miles I’d come, simply because I had no idea how they organized things! This was something that, in all my preparations, had simply never crossed my mind.

But being young, exasperation didn’t last long. I assumed there was something I didn’t know and so, endeavored to discover it. As I traveled first from Siena to Florence, working in the archives there, and then on to Bologna, Modena, Parma, Verona and Venice, I began to see something I now refer to as an “organizing principle.” All this means is the method by which information is structured or catalogued: by time (date or period), by subject (name, place, thing or field), and which is primary, and what are secondary and so forth. I started to catch on, seeing that we all do this.

When I’d get to an archive, I’d challenge myself to think of every possible organizing principle with which to conduct my search. I’d try different methods and sequences as I scanned the shelves, the indexes and what card catalogues there were (common more to libraries than archives). I’d leave my own organizing prejudices behind and try to imagine how people in the 18th century might think. The more flexible my thinking, the faster I found the key for using each archive. And soon, it became my game, a researcher’s version of hide and seek!

This game certainly made me a more adept and patient, not to mention successful, researcher.  It also, oddly enough, prepared me well for web searches. If I’m trying to find material on a subject or concept that is not obviously named, it takes some time to figure out how to snag the information from, say, the Google mind. Little did I know that dusty Italian archives would prove a useful training ground for web searches a quarter of a century later. And that a book, with an unassuming cover, called The Information, would help explain a mystery a quarter of a century old.

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About Rebecca Reynolds

Leadership Guru; Systems Thinker; Complex Problem Solver; Facilitative Leader...also LOVE life, dog Wiley, good food, Malbec, forests, oceans, yoga stillness, the boxing bag, ballroom dance, and movies.
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4 Responses to Alphabetical Order

  1. Intriguing and related piece by Geoffrey Nunberg on Google’s “cataloguing” of digitial library: http://chronicle.com/article/Googles-Book-Search-A/48245 – thanks to Claire Armitstead (@carmitstead) for the pointer to this.

  2. Pingback: How People Search | rebeccaspeak

  3. Sarah R. says:

    Wonderful, fascinating post. I see you are interested in how people think, as am I, and in how systems work. It was neat to read of your trip to Italy as an undergrad, since I didn’t hear about it at the time.

    • Thanks, Sarah. I admit, I am fascinated by how people think…a life-long inquiry. And thank you for reading this post — I wrote it awhile ago when I was reading Gleick’s book – have you read it? Fascinating! The Italy trip was a major life milestone for me — am planning a South Africa adventure for November, which I hope will rival the Italy one (25 years hence)! Would be intrigued to learn about your experiences with organizing principles, research and search in general, and anything else along these lines! Cheers!

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