Friday, April 3

The history of knowledge history today

Miniature of the woman reading from the Chronicles of the King of France by Robert Gaguin, Paris, 1514.There have been so many intellectual changes (global, emotional, material, performative) in recent decades that it becomes difficult to think about them without feeling dizzy. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about the "information turnaround" and the "archive turnaround". The sudden surge in interest in the history of information or knowledge at the beginning of the century is certainly linked to current debates about the type of "information society" in which we live. This interest is also linked to the "archive turn", in which historians who have studied in archives for a long time have started to take them seriously as the subject of their own investigation and to ask themselves how they came about and why they were organized Paths and their purposes they serve.

Archives and information in the early modern period is a valuable addition to the growing literature on the subject. Sixteen scientists contributed to this volume, which focuses on early modern Europe, but also contains chapters on the Spanish Empire and the East Asian information system.

The authors discuss a number of ambitious and deceptively simple questions. What counts as an archive? For whom and for what purposes were archives set up? How did they relate to the rise of a characteristic early modern state? Who had access to the records? How were they arranged? How were they actually used? The answers to these questions are of course very different in the different parts of Europe during the discussion period, but some topics repeat themselves. For example, we learn that an archive was both a status symbol and a government instrument. It has also been critical to the rise of the "information state", sometimes referred to as the "paper state", as bureaucracy depends on the increasing availability of cheap paper.

The rules for access to the archive were different, but long before Leopold von Ranke (who was described by the Victorian historian Lord Acton as "the real author of the heroic study of the records") was allowed to do research there – if possible, that is, it could lack of heating and lighting.

Storing information has often become a problem, and various solutions are described, from storing documents in wall-hanging bags to “filing” in the original sense of the term – impaling on a metal pen. Getting information was another problem. the archivists had to choose between chronological order, alphabetical order, thematic order, etc. Unfortunately, the solutions tried did not always work.

Keeping government papers in one central location was the ideal, but in practice they were often scattered in remote depots or in the homes of former ministers who considered the documents their property and left them to their heirs, as Cardinal Richelieu left to his heirs, his niece ,

The orderly archive was a utopia. In fact, it was more likely to find what the Duke of Ferrara's secretary called "chaos of confusion." The central problem that was discussed in more than one chapter was what is now known as "information overload": finding too much, reading too much, knowing too much. Archives and information in the early modern periodThe chapters by Randolph Head and Filippo de Vivo in particular are important reading for anyone dealing with the problems of information societies or the functioning of the early modern state.

Archives and information in the early modern period
Liesbeth Corens, Kate Peters and Alexandra Walsham (ed.)
Proceedings of the British Academy / Oxford University Press
326 pp £ 70

Peter Burke is the author of two books on the history of knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot (Polity, 2000) and From the encyclopedia to Wikipedia (Polity, 2012).

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