Information management – a historical perspective

I thought I would start the 2012 blog year by looking back, not just at 2011 but at some information issues that were emerging in 16th century Europe. One of the most fascinating books I read in 2011 was Too Much To Know by Anne Blair.  This very erudite book is all about the problems of managing scholarly information before in Modern Age.  We think that the problems of information overload are just a result of the digital revolution that has taken place over the last decade or so, but the reality is that every age has had the same types of problem to overcome. On p14 of her book the author has a major subtitle Information Management in Antiquity, and throughout the book the theme of information management keeps on appearing as new methods were invented to cope not just with advent of printed books but also with an overload of manuscripts.

What we refer to as information architecture dates back to 1503 where a branched contents page was used to help the reader understand how the manuscript was organised. The concept of the index dates from 1515, and at that time had to cope with the fact that manuscripts did not have page numbers. Instead a chapter was divided into sections, tagged from A through to whatever was a sensible letter . Writing marginal notes in manuscripts, very much along the lines of social tagging, started to be commonplace around 1570. All these were solutions to how to deal effectively with increasing amounts of information.

Even some of our current approaches to information management have a long history. The development of enterprise search can be traced back to the work of Gerald Salton in the mid-1960s and wikis were introduced by Ward Cunningham in 1994, about the same time as weblogs started to appear. No one has even owned up to coining the term ‘intranet’ though by 1996 there were certainly a number of intranet implementation case studies being published. I can still vividly remember the enthusiasm and indeed passion for intranets at Intranets 1999 in San Francisco. This was probably the first intranet-specific conference.

As we move in to 2012 it is likely that mobile access to information will be high up the list for evaluation and implementation, so it is worth remembering that the initial development work on cellular mobile devices took place in the mid-1970s and tablet PCs were launched (briefly!) in 2002.

As well as Ann Baker’s book there is also a good book on the historical development of information management from Alex Wright.

Is there a moral here for 2012? Probably that we should not be diverted from a path of delivering content excellence by unthinking adoption of ‘new’ technology. An article that I had written in late 2002 on selecting a content management application was brought to my attention just before Christmas.  To my considerable surprise well over 90% is still relevant today. I’d like to think that was a result of my skills in forecasting the future but the reality is that industrial-strength technology takes a long time to move from vendor enthusiasm to wide-spread adoption.

Martin White