In college, I traveled to Italy for six months to study in the archives. My subject was, of all things, 18th century Italian opera. What I was looking for, namely letters from any of the prime donne (first ladies of the opera house), was not to be found in US libraries. So, I spent a semester planning, reading history, contacting likely scholar mentors, and learning Italian so I could go and search in the Italian archives.
When I arrived in what was to be my home, the small, medieval hill town of Siena, I immediately got to work. First, intensive language study; second, intense social life (I was just 24); third, practice in approaching the archives. Facing the mirror, I rehearsed my introductory sentences about being an American, studying 18th century opera, and looking for letters from singers of that period. When I’d got it down, I headed for the local library – a palatial edifice founded in 1759. I didn’t really expect to find anything there, just to practice, to get the feel of it.
My rehearsal was pointless; the arch fellow behind a monolithic desk barely glanced at me as he pointed, raised arm and index finger, at a stack of what I took for card catalogues. Not bad, I thought. Just like home. At the case, I peered at the tiny white cards on each mini-drawer. And here began the mystery that would engulf me for the rest of my six-month trip.
Each card was written in a sloping, curly que hand that looked like it belonged to the first librarian back in the mid-1700s. The drawers were in alphabetical order, but it was unclear of what. Some entries were name of historical figure, some of place, and some of author, with no obvious system denoting why or which. I was baffled. Upon closer inspection, I found there were also no numbers in the top right or left corner of the cards: no Dewey Decimal system. Egads – it never occurred to me that Dewey wasn’t ubiquitous! What was going on?
Enter Mr. James Gleick and his wonderful book The Information, out in paperback any day now. As it turns out, how we organize information is indicative of who we are. Makes sense. And the way we organized things early on had more to do with the things themselves than with the efficiency of the system. In other words, Gleick explains, information was ordered by subject, rather than by alphabetization (which, by the way, didn’t come into common practice for an astonishingly long time – 1613, to be exact).
What Gleick explained, that seems quite obvious upon reflection, is that humans think about things in terms of their experience of them. And then, bin them up accordingly. (Everything I eat, everything that breathes, everything that grows, etc.) This system worked quite well for a limited quantity of information used by a small and perhaps congenial group of people. So, it wasn’t until the amount of information increased and a larger, more diverse group was using it that the need for a more efficient cataloguing system arose.
This, significantly, would cause information to be separated from experience. Alphabetical order, as Gleick explains, “is unnatural. It forces the user to detach information from meaning; to treat words strictly as character strings.” The Dewey Decimal system takes abstraction a step farther since the number has nothing whatsoever to do with its correlated subject. (At least a letter corresponds with the name.)
With Gleick’s help, I see now that what I’d found in Siena’s small, but centuries old library was the layering on of alphabetical order over what appeared to be a prevailing subject matter system. And, as I would come to learn from living in Italy, Italians hold hard to how things are done – no matter how seemingly nonsensical or inefficient. But then perhaps, so don’t we all.
Back then, as I sat staring into a drawer (and by the way, the cards came fully out, which also made me gasp – how easy it would be for them to be stolen or put in the wrong order!), it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never find anything in Italy. All that way for nothing, simply because I had no idea how the Italians organized things! This was something, in all my preparations, that just hadn’t crossed my mind.
But I was in Italy and for six months too, so I endeavored to figure it out. As I traveled first from Siena to Florence to work in the archives there, and then on to Bologna, Modena, Parma, Verona and Venice, I began to see something I now refer to as an “organizing principle.” All this means is the method by which information is structured or catalogued: by time (date or period) or by subject (name, place, or field), and which is primary and secondary and so forth.
When I’d get to an archive, I’d challenge myself to think of every possible organizing principle with which to conduct my search. I’d try different methods and sequences as I scanned the shelves, the indexes and what card catalogues there were. I’d leave my own organizing prejudices behind and try to imagine how people in the 18th century might think. The more flexible my thinking, the faster I found the key for using each archive. And soon, it became the game, the researcher’s version of hide and seek.
The happy outcome of my Italy trip was finding seven letters from my favorite prima donna, Caterina Gabrielli, on which I based my thesis. The letters were hidden away in the Vatican Archives…but that’s another story.
The true treasure of that trip was the notion of the organizing principle. We all have them. And which ones we use dictates how we organize our worlds – both our physical one and, more importantly, the one inside our minds. Knowing this has proved invaluable in my leadership, collaboration and strategic planning work over the past 20 years (not to mention my travel).
Little did I know that dusty Italian archives would prove a useful training ground for a consulting career. Or that a book, with an unassuming cover, called The Information, would help explain a mystery a quarter of a century old.