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) 

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Jun 2009

Comments are closed.