This image from
Michael Lesy’s wonderful Real Life,
But I prefer to think of the stuff in the boxes as letters, or words, or just plain old data: sat for instance instead of this place being a clothing store it was a department store for writing, and this was the Poetry Section, selling words by the order, one word at a time. Or perhaps the boxes held images. Or entire ideas—just not entire, finished works.
wouldn’t data and ideas have been stored and sold like this rather than hosiery
This got me thinking a little about the storage and dispensing of information in antiquarian times, about how some of the writers of great and high-erudite works were actually able to accomplish their efforts. Deep into the early and future-vision-primitive history of online digital exploration, it is difficult to imagine producing works of sustained viability using combinations of only (private) libraries, memory palaces1, correspondence and notes. Today the internet accounts for less than 1% of the time of advanced scholarship in all of human history, but it has probably accounted for significant contributions to half of all the academic stuff that has ever been written--and we’re all probably terribly spoiled by the instant access to info in our datacentric existence.
My own digital addiction in mind, I marvel at the accomplishments of people like Vincent Placcius (1642-1699), a vastly learned guy who sorted out 2,777 anonymous publications in 1500 pages, somehow, three hundred years ago. He wrote a monumental bibliographical work
(Theatrum Anonymorum et Pseudonynorum2) with superb references, and did so with what
we would today deem relatively nothing. Placcius
did have some sort chest-like devices with rods and pins and god knows what
that functioned in a way I don’t understand as a note-keeping/comparing
device. I’ve included images of the
device (below) in the hope that someone out there might recognize and explain
it. In any event, this superb piece of
scholarship—the first of its kind—had to have taken a lifetime of reading and understanding
and investigation to reveal. The
frontispiece to the book shows the author in
a library unmasking two anonymous authors, the masks of other conquests
linked above him on a chord.
Another example in the how-did-they-do-it category is Stanislaus Lubienitzky’s (1623-1675) Theatrum Cometicum…(1667), a powerhouse of data on all things cometary. Lubienitzky recorded all manners of observations and reports of all comets ever recorded in extant chronicle or published work. Ever. It is a vast and learned work of incredible determination.
1. See Frances Yates for the great standard on memory devices, The Art of Memory (1966). And as long as we’re at it, her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1971) are also terrific works on a very high order.
2. Theatrum Anonymorum et Pseudonynorum2, Ex Symbolis & Collatione Virorum Per Europam Doctissimorum Ad Celeberrrimorum, Post Syntagma Dudum Editum, Summa Beati Auctoris Cura Reclusum...1708