The Evolution of Organizing Information

According to J. J. O’Donnell (1994) the phrase ‘virtual library’ suggests a vast, universal collection of information that can be instantly accessed from anywhere. Although this ‘virtual library’ does not exist except as a fantasy, digital technologies of today are bringing its existence closer to reality. The phrase ‘virtual library’ is found in popular press only as recently as 1987, but the concept of a ‘virtual library’ has been around for much longer. All cultures that have used written records to record knowledge have had the fantasy of building a virtual library, it is not a novel idea unique to the people of today (O’Donnell,  1994). J.D. Bolter (2001, p.81) describes a dream of the Greeks, Romans, and medieval writers to create the ‘great book’, a place for all verbal knowledge. The great book of knowledge arises in two forms that function to organize, control, and make texts available to readers, the library which holds a collection of books and the encyclopaedia which condenses them. This essay will summarize the evolution of encyclopaedias and libraries as information organizing structures as they head towards becoming a ‘virtual library’ in the digital age.


Traditionally libraries were collections of books and the structure in which they were organizes and stored. Today libraries provide access to various media formats including maps, prints, documents, microfiche, audiotapes, CDs, DVDs, eBooks, and the internet (‘Library’, 2011).

Recognized for being the first library to allow the public access along with scholars, the great library of Alexandria was founded about 300 BC by King Ptolemy I (305–282 BC) and aimed to hold copies of all the written works in the world (Krasher-Khaut, 2001). The works were held mainly on papyrus scrolls, they were stored in pigeonholes with the titles written on wooden tags. The works were organized into three major topics which were stored in different rooms. Within each topic the works were then organized alphabetically by the first name of the author, a novel innovation at the time. As the library grew, the first category was subdivided into the main genres of literature of the day which were then each alphabetized (Philips, 2010). Another new feature of organization of the library was the pinakes or ‘Table of Persons Eminent in Every Branch of Learning Together With a List of Their Writings’, which was an alphabetical list of works by author. It functioned similar to a library catalogue except it was on a scroll, patrons of the library could use it to find a work by an author, see how it was categorized, and where would be found (Philips, 2010).

Other ancient Greek and Roman libraries also organized the papyrus rolls by subject and then by author. Libraries of the middle ages used a similar system but divided books into topics by university faculty before alphabetizing by author. Books in modern libraries continue to be organized by topic first but the topical schemes became more complicated and few library users understand the Dewey system commonly used (Bolter, 2001, p.91). Card catalog systems or computer databases are used to search for books by author, title, subject, and keyword, once the desired book’s record in the system is found, the call number of the book is used like an address to physically locate the book in the library.


Encyclopaedias are a summary of knowledge, divided into articles that focus on factual information. The oldest encyclopaedia still in existence is around 2000 years old. Written by Pliny the Elder, ‘Natural History’ is a compilation covering a self-claimed 20,000 facts from 2000 works by 200 authors. The articles are arranged in 37 chapters covering disciplined of history, art and architecture, medicine, geography, and geology (‘Encyclopedia’, 2011).

During the middle ages encyclopaedic writing was a popular type of scholarly writing as a vehicle for reaching the goal of synthesizing all knowledge. Medieval scholars study and summarize important texts in their own handbooks, which could subsequently become authoritative texts. Although more encyclopaedias were produced after the printing press, writing encyclopaedias became more difficult due to the increased number of texts being written. The goal of encyclopaedic writing shifted from being a synthesis of knowledge interrelating all subjects to reporting accurate information (Bolter, 2001, p.82).

Organization of information is an important characteristic of encyclopaedias. During ancient and medieval times topics were organized by association in a linear fashion the author deemed the content best to learn in and this fit well with linear nature of the papyrus rolls being used. The invention of the codex format allowed ‘random access’ of content and more elaborate categories and deeper hierarchies were used. After the advent of print, the linear nature of the medieval topical systems become inadequate for organizing and categorizing new scientific knowledge and organization schemes shifted towards the neutral methods of alphabetizing and indexing information. The majority of encyclopaedias from the 18th century on use alphabetical organization by article title (Bolter, 2001, p.84).

Organizing Too Much Information

The above graph is timeline graph showing the relative number of articles by year for the term ‘history of library’ in the Google search engine. One can see the surge in articles over the time period 1500 to 1990. Although the term ‘information revolution’ is commonly used to describe the abundance or overload of available information since the computer, textual overload has been actually been a permanent condition since the advent of the printing press (Bolter, 2001, p.83)

In 1945 Vannevar Bush made a call for scientists to work towards using technology to make the accumulation of scientific information more accessible. He describes how science has created an information bank that is a record of ideas that can be manipulated and extracted from. Bush recognizes that the amount of information being recorded is growing into an unmanageable mountain and as scientists are increasingly specialized in their disciplines, the links between disciplines are becoming superficial. Scientists need to spend too much of their time reviewing and reading the findings of others to stay current, methods of communication between scientists are old and inadequate for the amount of information being produced. (Bush, 1945)

Bush describes many upcoming technologies to deal with the information overload problem in two ways, by creating smaller, more accurate records and by changing the systems used to organize and store information. Bush believed the major difficulties in retrieving or finding information is caused by the artificially of indexing systems that humans have used to organize information. Usually by topic or alphabetically, indexing systems do not work like the human brain which operates by association of thoughts in the brain which can be thought of as a web made of information trails. Bush believes its possible for selection by association to be mechanized, and describes a machine, he calls the ‘memex’, to do this. The memex is an extension of an individual’s memory, it will store books, records, and communications, and it will also be mechanized to facilitate speed and flexibility when being consulted. Information can be found by conventional indexing but the power of the machine is in providing a mechanism by which the user can link information in different sources, providing a trail through various information sources. He accurately predicts that new forms of encyclopedias will arise, complete with ready made associative trails running through them. (Bush, 1945)

The Encyclopedia Britannica 15th ed. 1974 fulfills Bush’s prediction for using new type of organization in and was an attempt to create a hypertext before its time. It had both an alphabetical and a topical arrangement, the Macropaedia component contained written articles arranged in alphabetical order and the accompanying Propaedia  was an outline meant to be a guide for reading the Macropaedia articles. The reader could look up a topic in the Propaedia and then follow a reading outline of referenced articles in the Macropedia, in essence turning the encyclopedia into a hypertext that the reader had to physically manipulate to find the required volumes and pages. The Propaedia was not popular with readers and was phased out by the mid 1980s (Bolter, 2001, p.86).

Encyclopaedias and Libraries in the Digital Age

The goal of encyclopaedias being a synthesis of knowledge rather than being primarily factual information has remerged with the use of digital forms remediating print encyclopaedias. (Bolter, 2001, p.83) In a digital encyclopedia the search engine can find any topic because it searches the text as well as the categories used by the author. In this way, there are unlimited topical arrangements as well as alphabetical organizing that can exist with an electronic text. The order of the text is no longer defined in the linear front to back fashion of a book. (Bolter, 2001, p.88) Today, the World Wide Web (WWW) contains millions of pages of hyperlinked text and media that can be considered as both a new encyclopaedia and library (Bolter, p.83).

Online Encyclopedias and Libraries


Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bush, V. (1945). As we may think. The Atlantic Monthly, 176(1), 101-108. Retrieved Nov. 15, 2010 from

Dobson, T. & J. Willinsky. (2009). Digital Literacy (draft). The Cambridge Handbook on Literacy. Retrieved on December 2, 2010 from

Encyclopedia. (2011, January 1). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved January 2, 2011, from

Krasher-Khaut, B. (2001). Survivor: The History of the Library. History Magazine. Retrieved from

Library. (2011, January 3). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved January 2, 2011, from

O’Donnel, J.J. (1994). The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. Retrieved Oct. 20, 2010 from

Philips, H. (2010). The Great Library of Alexandria? Library of Philosophy and Practice 2010. Retrieved on Dec.1 from

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