Reinventing Knowledge: The Medieval Controversy of Alphabetical Order

In their Reinventing Knowledge chapter on monasteries and convents, Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton mention findability techniques developed following the invention of the page, including alphabetical order (p. 91).  David Weinberger, in Everything Is Miscellaneous, also discusses the development of alphabetical order in the Middle Ages.  He points out that it took a long time tocatch on because, in his opinion, it was “conceptually confusing.”  To prove his point about confusion, he quotes alphabetizing instructions from 1286, which apart from the funny spelling, are actually quite clear (pp. 26-27).  Weinberger is correct, however, that alphabetical order took centuries to be accepted, but he is wrong about the reason.  It was not too confusing, it was too easy. 

According to Mary and Richard Rouse in their article “Statim invenire: Schools, Preachers, and New Attitudes to the Page,”* the alphabet is an artificial method of ordering as opposed to a rational method.  This distinction can be seen in glosses, reference works that explained details of the Bible without biblical interpretation.  These glosses eventually evolved into glossaries.  Information in early glosses appeared in the same order that it appeared in the Bible or other religious books.  This is called a rational order.  Even indexes were arranged in the same order as the book being indexed.  To find something, you had to already know what page it was on.  Rouse & Rouse indicate these early finding devices were meant to reflect the concept that the “universe is a harmonious whole” (p. 202).  So the primary concern of arrangement was to promote philosophy not to find information.

That changed when authors of religious books needed streamlined access to information.  As preachers, they started alphabetizing material called distinction collections to help them prepare weekly, or in 1200 perhaps daily, sermons.    Alphabetical order is an artificial method because it has no purpose other than to arrange information.  It does not reflect how the book is organized.  It does not reflect a philosophical theory.  It just puts material into a simple, easy to understand structure.  The preachers apologized for using alphabetical order, but they went ahead and developed the method because they needed to find information fast. 

            The controversy over alphabetical order continues today.  An information architecture discussion list recently had a lively exchange about popularity ranking vs. the alphabet.  One person preferred popularity because it was felt that alphabetical order is essentially random.  The respondent here was confusing an artificial arrangement with a complete lack of order.  More interesting, however, is the assumption that a rational order with unknown values, such as popularity, is preferable to an artificial order with known values, such as the alphabet.  We pretty much all know the alphabet, but if you look at a list of items arranged by popularity, you can only guess at individual placement.

Function determines the form of an arrangement.  Popularity and the alphabet serve different functions.  There are many situations where popularity is the most valuable organizing choice.  But if you just want to display information for fast location, those preachers in the Middle Ages developed a very easy method.

* The Rouse and Rouse article is available as a chapter in their book Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts (1991) and in the conference proceedings Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century (Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable, eds., 1982). 

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Reinventing Knowledge: Early Information Architecture in the Page of a Book

After the page was invented as a findability fix for scrolls, medieval scribes started working on its information architecture.  To learn more about the history of the page, I followed a citation in Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet by Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, to the article by Mary and Richard Rouse “Statim invenire: Schools, Preachers, and New Attitudes to the Page.” *

Pages in a book allowed readers to open to a specific passage, rather than having to scan while unrolling a scroll.  Pages also allowed the simple finding device of a table of contents.   Rouse and Rouse indicate that “virtually every twelfth- to fourteenth-century aid to study that has a prologue” (p. 197) includes material about ease of use with such phrases as “statim invenire which means to find instantly.  That’s three centuries of bragging about findability. 

Once they discovered findability, monks and nuns who spent their entire existence praying and copying texts, began looking at the page itself as an opportunity for improvement.  Some of their innovations included clearly delineated paragraphs and early quotation marks know as puncti, two dots (..) above the first word of the quote and a colon (:) above the last word.  They wrote chapter headings in different colors and included running headlines, now known as headers and footers.They placed citations to the side of pertinent text, later moved to the bottom of the page and called footnotes.

These are standards we use today in print publishing.  As Web pages developed in recent decades, new standards evolved.  For example, most Web pages include navigation methods, frequently a line of buttons at the top or the side of the page.  Copyright statements are often at the bottom of the page in small letters.  While there are books about design standards, there are no laws that say a Webpage must be arranged in this way, but most of them are.  As in the Middle Ages, these standardized protocols became established through practitioners’ development and use.

There is one significant difference.  In the Middle Ages, information architects were confined to small groups working in monasteries and convents.  Later, book production fell to publishers, still a small group.  Today, anyone can design and publish a Webpage, thus the group that collectively agrees on standards is much larger.  Many of its members are volunteers.  There are no rules and anyone can veer from standardization.  We are less surprised to see a Web page without navigation buttons than a published book without a title page.  

            Voluntary standardization is the collectivism promoted by many who see the Web as a unique reinvention of knowledge.  But it seems to be a matter of scale.  The monks and nuns invented information architecture and spent several centuries working out the details of the page.  When the Internetcommunity began building Web pages, they spent several years working out the details of our current standard practices.  ________________________

* The Rouse and Rouse article is available as a chapter in their book Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts (1991), which I used, and in the conference proceedings Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century (Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable, eds., 1982) 

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Jun 2009

Reinventing Knowledge, Inventing Findability

             Knowledge communication began to change from speech to text in the 3rd Century BCE.  Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton define this as the first reinvention of knowledge in their book, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet. Controversy accompanies any major change and the controversy over speech vs. text continued for centuries, perhaps continuing today.   

The argument in favor of speech grows from the reputation of the speaker.  When someone talks to you, you are likely to know that person and can rate reliability.  Written words, however, may emanate from a geographically distant author with an unknown reputation.  While many place high value on the published word, others may be inclined to give more credence to the opinions of friends, even if those friends are virtual with reliability gauged by reputation management systems on social networking sites.   

In the ancient world, textual material had other advantages beyond reputation, as explained by Cassiodorus, a Roman official in the 5th and 6th Centuries CE, “even if our memory retains the content, it alters the words; but there [on paper] discourse is stored in safety, to be heard for ever with consistency” (Encyclopaedia Romana).  Two millennia later, we find ourselves returning to conversational discourse with an online record that can be heard forever with consistency, or at least as long as the Website remains active.    

Cassiodorus eventually founded a monastery where he participated in the second reinvention of knowledge.  As Rome disintegrated, monks and nuns retreated into their cloisters, took vows of silence, and started copying texts.   Monasteries and convents became the repositories of knowledge with religious scribes silently copying words, thus cementing text over speech as the medium for knowledge exchange.

Books started out as scrolls, which themselves were a technological improvement over bark tablets.  Here’s Cassiodorus writing about the olden days, “For how could you quickly record words which the resistant hardness of bark made it almost impossible to set down?  No wonder that the heat of the mind suffered pointless delays, and genius was forced to cool as its words were retarded” (Encyclopaedia Romana).  That’s exactly the improvement I find with computers over typewriters. 

Like anyone who spends a lot of time with written texts, the monks and nuns started thinking about findability.  Paper scrolls, faster for writing, had a serious problem.  To get to any point in the middle, you had to keep unrolling until you found the right passage.  Books, the 2nd Century’s latest technology, solved that with individual pages (not to mention the cost savings of writing on both sides).  Now instead of unrolling, you could just turn to a specific page.  The word for these early books is codex.  Kind of has a technological ring to it.  McNeely and Wolverton compare the change to “the difference between a videotape and a DVD.”

(For an overview of findability in the 21st Century, see the AIIM report Findability: The Art and Science of Making Content Easy to Find by Carl Frappaolo and Dan Keldsen of Information Architected.)

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Jun 2009

Reinventing Knowledge in Times of Change

Currently reading Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet by Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton.  I am interested in claims of knowledge reinvention during times of upheaval.  In Everything Is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger promotes our time of the World Wide Web as reinventing knowledge.  Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen and photosynthesis, also promoted his time of the American and French Revolutions as reinventing knowledge. 

Eras of massive change, such as Priestley’s and our own, encourage us to believe that our time on earth is the most important in all of history, so important that even knowledge is transformed.  In their book, McNeeley and Wolverton look at actual changes in knowledge, primarily through the institutions that promoted them.

First up is the library at Alexandria.  The change here is from the spoken word to the written word.  That’s a huge change in knowledge.  Writing and books existed before the library’s founding in 300 BCE, but only as an adjunct to the spoken word.  Because authors dictated their words to scribes, writing was a service, not a scholarly activity.  The speaker, not the writer, was honored.  That changed when the Alexandrian library began collecting scrolls and providing scholars with convivial living arrangements. 

During the transition from speech to text, there was much argument about the value of written ideas as opposed to spoken ideas.  Socrates preferred the spoken word which he felt was more truthful.  You could gauge the veracity of ideas by the reputation of the speaker.  In contrast, the written word was separate from the author and there was no way, at least in Ancient Greece, of judging the reputation of the writer. 

According to McNeeley and Wolverton, the oral versus written argument continued through the 18th Century.  It continues today with two forms of research – reading about ideas and talking about ideas with colleagues.  If you want the latest information, do you reach for a database or a telephone?  Do you feel more comfortable with a distant author or someone whose reputation you already know?

Social interaction on the Web may be another continuation of the argument.  Are social sites the digital equivalence of oral rhetoric?  Web connectivity encourages the free exchange of ideas, like a spoken discussion with a much bigger conversational group.  The medium is written, but speed encourages spontaneous interaction.  Many sites have reputation systems to help users gauge the veracity of other users.  One might suggest the quality of discourse on today’s social sites is far below that of the ancient Greeks, but remember they didn’t write everything down.      

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May 2009