Knowledge, Retrieval, and My Unshakeable Love of the Printed Page

Vannevar Buch’s 1945 essay “As We May Think” is amazing in its forward-thinking approach to the nature of content management–essentially how we store information, retrieve it, make use of it, and develop knowledge as a result. His vision of a “memex,” a desk-like structure that could house a mechanism that would aid in the fast retrieval of information via microfilm, never became a reality as originally envisioned, but the idea of it is embedded in so much modern computer technology. Rather than the speed of retrieval, what fascinated me about the device was his concept of how it would help us organize and use information via association, rather than traditional indexical approaches relying on alphabetizing or numbering. The ability to connect together disparate pieces of information into a “trail” that was then saved and could be revisited later is a remarkable concept and one that, in many ways, still eludes us today, even with all of our advanced software and computing power.

On a somewhat unrelated note, I have to admit that reading Bush’s essay stoked some of my more Luddite tendencies, particularly my love of the tangible nature of books and other physical media. My wife, who is completing her doctorate in psychology, once gave me an aptitude test, the results of which indicated that I was well suited to be a librarian–not a particularly surprising finding given my love of libraries. Beyond the abstract idea of the library as a repository for human knowledge, for me there is an aesthetic thrill to seeing all the books lined up in the stacks as a kind of visual representation of humankind’s accumulated intellectual achievements. I recognize that this is a purely aesthetic appreciation and one that is not necessarily conducive to efficient scholarship (as Bush makes abundantly clear), but it is something that I can’t quite shake. In fact, part of the reason I requested a Kindle for this course was to challenge myself to shake loose from my attachment to the old-fashioned bound book and more fully embrace the possibilities that Bush’s memex first envisioned.

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