Google Before Google, or, On the History of Search

Chad Wellmon

Kevin Kelly, a senior editor at Wired, recently predicted the advent of a universal library in which all the world’s books will become a "single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas." He claims that the digitization efforts of Google Books will result in a searchable library that will connect every book ever written. Other perhaps less sanguine observers interpret the advent of digitization and new media as portending a new age of information overload.  With the rise of digital media, we produce, transmit and suffer a glut of information. All we can do, it is said, is manage it. Early modern and Enlightenment scholars, however, have increasingly warned us not to imagine our own information age to be historically unprecedented, as information overload is both a "profoundly unique symptom of now and a historical problem." More broadly, historical experiences of the proliferation of information and the centrifugal force of knowledge offer invaluable insight into a more fundamental history: the history of the organization of knowledge.

This talk is a contribution to a history of Google before Google. It recounts but one essential chapter in the story of the recurring human desire to "organize the world’s information" – Google’s stated goal. Eighteenth-century European Enlightenment was less a renunciation of "immaturity" than an organizing system of printed footnotes, indices, indexes, collations and cross-references. Enlightenment was bibliographic. Enlightenment was a series of tools that accelerated search and linking capacities of its central medium: print.

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