St. Augustine to NREN:
  • The tree of knowledge and how it grows *
  • At the turn of an age, it is good to know where we have been. It helps a little, as we strive to discern where we are going. The transformation of our ways of knowing by electronic media is well under way and will be a watershed in the history of culture. Those who have studied with some envy earlier transformative moments, like that of the introduction of printing, thinking that to be young in those days was very heaven,[1] should not forget to be grateful that we are alive in days that are if anything more exciting.

    All agree on the importance of two earlier moments: when writing was introduced to give the voice power over distance and when printing gave wider distribution to what the hand had written.[2] My business in this paper is to draw attention to a less well-publicized and studied moment in our past, to examine its influence on our past and on ourselves, and then to make a few suggestions about the future. I mean to do no more than sketch, suggest, and provoke. It is no accident that I do this for an audience with a keen professional interest in `serials', for I believe that the scholarly journal has rich potential for becoming a powerful engine driving the transformation of scholarly and scientific ways of knowing in the years to come. I hope to give some reasons for that optimism in the course of this paper.

    I. The Age of the Codex

    Writing among the Mediterranean peoples whom we acknowledge as ancestors[3] began on stone,[4] but only became a useful vehicle for the dissemination of information when the technology of the papyrus roll or scroll was perfected.[5] Though the Athens of Sophocles and Plato (c. 400 B.C.) was a town almost intoxicated with the power of the written word, the real achievement of ancient literacy was consolidated a century and more later in the Greek- founded Egyptian city of Alexandria.[6] There the rows on rows of neatly docketed rolls in their pigeon-holes created the first great library and the first great generations of literary critics and consumers. Most of that treasure is now lost to us, and what survives for the most part in fragments unearthed from the Egyptian sands in the last century.

    The ancient roll was an elegant but cumbersome form of record. Size was strictly limited. We are told, perhaps only in legend but in verisimilar legend, that the length of a `book' in antiquity (such as the 24 `books' that make up the Iliad or the Odyssey) was de facto defined by the size of the pigeon-holes at Alexandria. A thousand or so lines of text was all that a roll could hold, and that itself would be already a bulky long sheet of papyrus rolled up on itself, averaging 20- 30 feet in length. To shuffle through a roll looking for a passage was time-consuming and bothersome. To manipulate 24 of those in order to control one of Homer's epics is to our taste a seriously user-hostile environment.

    There was already a humbler form of information-processing technology at hand for day-to-day purposes: the wax tablet. In its simplest form, this was a sheet of wood, hollowed out, with melted wax poured in the hollow. A dry stylus would incise letters which the thumb could then erase at will. For memoranda, transient bookkeeping, and daily business, these tablets were excellent. Several of them bound together by thongs made something that was not at all unlike our notion of a small book.[7]

    Somewhere in the first centuries of the common era, the notion of making a formal literary medium out of bound pages on the model of the wax tablet suddenly caught on. Though the codex, for such is the name given to the form in antiquity, may comprise pages of either papyrus or animal skins, in practice parchment and vellum (skin of sheep and calf, respectively), began to be widely used.[8] The evidence strongly suggests that the popularity of the codex form may be attributed to the habits of early Christians, but it must be emphasized that when we say that we are working inferentially from the statistics of surviving manuscripts, and there is not one shred of direct evidence to tell us where or when someone first made the case for this form of textual preservation.[9] The first appreciable use of the codex form for literary texts is noticeable in the second century, but it is in the third century (one of the darkest and least documented periods of antiquity) that the corner was turned; by the fourth century, an age of relatively settled prosperity and (for the Christians) triumphant consolidation, the codex had won the day. Of surviving second century Greek manuscripts, 99% are rolls; of surviving fifth century manuscripts, 90% are codices.[10]

    One implication must be emphasized from this vital historical event. If you were a very farsighted citizen of the second century and you had a book on a papyrus roll, the thing you most wanted to do was see to it that it was copied into a codex format. Bluntly speaking, books that made that transition successfully had a reasonable chance of surviving and being read in the centuries to come; books that did not make that transition were more likely to be orphans in one form or another. The Greek plays of Menander, for example, were almost entirely lost to us until modern discoveries in the Egyptian sands began to restore him. The Latin plays of Plautus and Terence, on the other hand, some of them no more than ham-handed translations of Menander, had a long and lively history of medieval and modern readership. They had been rescued from the roll and saved for the codex at an early and timely date.[11]

    The manuscripts of the Christian Bible are predominantly transmitted to us in the codex form, and there is much discussion of the reasons for this particular focus. Was the codex form chosen for its ease of reference and cross-reference? That is a hard question, and scholarship at present declines to affirm what was once a commonplace truth. The problem is that none of the traces of such reference systems (whose western origins I will speak of below) can be found in those earliest manuscripts. Even the notion of a `Bible' as such is slow forming. `Scripture' is transmitted for the most part in separate manuscripts containing parts of the whole. The Greeks had larger comprehensive volumes earlier, but the Latins waited very late, probably until the sixth century, before drawing all the books of their scripture together in one set of covers.

    For a variety of reasons, we in the western world are their heirs of Greece chiefly at one remove, through Roman and Latin hands. The living tradition of Greek culture in the middle ages withdrew (from our point of view) to the Aegean shores and the Bosporus, a veil of Islamic and Slavic settlement fell between east and west and closed the Mediterranean to the free commerce and intercourse of antiquity, and `western civilization' was left to create itself north of the Mediterranean and west of the Vistula.

    Within those realms, a remarkable culture came into existence. I have chosen St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) as the patron saint of this paper, because he does stand predominant at the head of the line of that new culture. When Augustine set out at the beginning of the literary career that left five million words still surviving today, there was little substantial library of Christian literature for him to work with outside the Bible. Within his own generation, the first Christian bibliographic literature was being written, and within a century, library management was a new and pressing topic for many Latin writers.[12] Augustine appeared to his community as a mediator of the written word from the large and handsome gospel book that stood in his church sanctuary,[13] but it was a book that inspired his own production in great abundance.

    The making of the medieval library and with it medieval culture is a subject that still repays study.[14] Cassiodorus, a statesman, monk, and man of letters of the sixth century, is associated with the most ambitious single project we know of, that to create first a Christian university at Rome (but that project fell apart in time of war) and later a model Christian library on his estates near Squillace on the Ionian Sea (on the instep, so to speak, of the boot of Italy).[15] We can still, we surmise, see him as he appeared to his monks. A portrait of the Hebrew scribe Ezra, who was praised for restoring the books of the Law after the Babylonian captivity, was made in his library for a bible manuscript, and it was probably at least implicitly a flattering portrait of the scholar and librarian who commissioned the book in question -- the bookshelves in the background show an arrangement of books that matches what Cassiodorus himself describes for his own library at that time.[16] By this time, the arrangement of bound codex volumes in an armarium (where they usually lay flat on the shelves, already with titles on the spines), was a de facto standard.

    The codex had several advantages over the roll. First, its size was limited only by the strength of the user (or the user's furniture); much more material could be contained in a single unit. Second, the codex could be taken apart, put together, and rearranged at will. This meant that several different authors and titles could be combined and recombined with minimal difficulty. Third, and of greatest importance, non-linear access to the material in the volume was possible; by this I mean simply that the reader did not need to shuffle through every page of information from beginning to end to find what she was looking for -- with appropriate indexing or dumb luck she could pop the book open in the middle and find what she was looking for quickly. It is that third feature that offers the genesis of the revolution for which the codex stood and that offers the most important key to the reflections I will make below about our present situation.

    It is a useful rule promulgated by Marshall McLuhan, that the content of a new medium is always an old medium. When we invent the motion picture, the first thing we do is put a camera in front of actors performing a `play' and let it run; it takes a while before we even begin to take advantage of the possibilities of the new medium, and it takes a long while before the conventionalities of the old medium can be forgotten -- some are never forgotten.

    So it was in antiquity with the written word. The manuscript was first conceived to be no more than a prompt script for the spoken word, a place to look to find out what to say. The arrangement of words on the page, without punctuation and word- division, was as user-hostile as any DOS operating system could ever hope to be, and was meant for the technician, who knew how to read, to use to produce the audible word.[17] In many ways, then, the mere introduction of writing did little to change the way people used words, at least at first.

    And so there grew up a whole literature and culture of memory substitutes. Early medieval manuscripts feature diagrams accompanied by illustrations chosen because their allegorical meanings offered mnemonic keys to accompany the scheme outlining, say, the nine kinds of syllogism or the twelve types of definition possible in the school taxonomies of the time.[18] The people who produced those manuscripts seem still to have expected the reader to manage his own private non-linear information access system -- what we might call liveware memory. The real advantage of the written word, that the non-linear system it offers is one that anyone can use and that the user needs to know very little to get a great deal of use out of it, had not yet been fully exploited. In the age of memory, in order to know something, it was necessary to know it -- or to know personally someone who already knew it; in the age of writing, it is possible to know things without knowing them, and that is a very great revolution indeed.

    But the history of medieval manuscripts[19] is the history of the exploitation of the possibilities of the codex page. Arrangement of material on the page found increasing ways to make information more accessible and to facilitate cross-movements of various kinds. The simplest kind of non-linear access facilitation that we use all the time is the alphabet, and increasing facility with alphabetization, coming with agonizing slowness to our taste, is an important part of the history.[20] Two examples show the resourcefulness of the times.

    First I need to digress briefly to speak of Cassiodorus again and his intellectual obsessions. When the statesman had retired and not yet become a monk, he spent a decade in Constantinople, where he wrote a complete commentary on the Psalter, running to more than 1000 pages in its printed editions. Cassiodorus was an enthusiast for the application of the secular sciences to religion, not because he thought them superior but precisely because he thought them inferior. The secular sciences, he argued, had been re-invented superfluously by `pagan' philosophers when all the wisdom those sciences contained was already implicitly contained in divine revelation. Accordingly, his argument went on, the proper study of divine revelation included identification of all the parts of speech and forms of argument and styles of rhetoric that holy writ contained. Good monks could be better ones by being trained to detect the privileged forms of pseudo-secular (and in fact authentically Christian) wisdom in the Bible.[21]

    All this is background for his practice. The manuscripts of his Psalm commentary are prefaced with an index of abbreviations, two and three letter acronyms which are then found scattered through the margins of the whole commentary. So RT stands for `Rhetoric' and GEO for `Geometry'. Each abbreviation marks some point in the text where the teachings of that science are to be found (and they are almost always explicitly commented on there). Another abbreviation, the standard Christian chi-rho symbol, marks particular points of high dogma worth attending. The function of these marks is thus not primarily to be used while reading the commentary straight through in a linear way, but to facilitate non-linear access from a variety of user- defined perspectives -- that is to say, one can imagine but need not prescribe the reasons that might drive someone to the text looking for one or the other of the marginal abbreviations; but what is certain is that their presence made the text potentially far more useful than it would have been without them; and made for experiences of the text that were anything but linear and consecutive.

    Perhaps a clearer example is that of the Eusebian canon tables. One of the commonest early medieval Christian books is the gospel book; and of course one of the most obvious features of the gospel book is that it contains four narratives of the same life of Jesus, all different. Much modern ink is spilled on the `synoptic question' (how Matthew, Mark, and Luke are related, and why John seems so unrelated to the other three), but the topic is not new. In the second century already the Christian writer Tatian had produced a work he called the Diatessaron (roughly: `Four-in-One') in which he reduced the four accounts to a single linear narrative -- the idea was attractive but it is interesting that it did not catch on. In the early fifth century, Augustine had written at length on `The Agreement of the Evangelists', by which he meant their essential agreement in spite of all the appearance of disagreement. But the gospel manuscripts themselves generally have a simple reader's help. Each of the gospels is marked with a running series of marginal numbers in sequence, with each gospel starting over at the number one. Then in the front of the manuscript are pages in which architectural ornament highlights columns of parallel numbers. The technique is to list first passages in which, say, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have the same story. The marginal numbers from Matthew appear in the first column, with those of the corresponding elements in the corresponding stories from Mark and Luke in columns two and three. There are as many sets of these parallel columns as there are possible combinations of stories, so that there is a separate comparison for stories in Mark and Luke but not Matthew, and so forth.[22]

    An arrangement like this, not so much common as standard in the early gospel books and traditionally attributed to Eusebius of Caesarea, the great Greek church historian of the fourth century, is designed to be a form of non-linear access for both the linear reader of the text (who strikes a story in Luke and cannot quite remember where the parallels are in Matthew and Mark) and for the external consulter, who wishes to analyze overall patterns of coincidence and opposition. My point is that such an arrangement of information at the front of the handsome formal gospel book positively cries out for a style of reading that does not simply start on page one and work through to the end.[23]

    I do not think that I need at this point to say more than that the resourcefulness and the range of possibilities suggested by these examples demonstrate that the codex page format was one that lent itself admirably to non-linear access; and that the reader's own imagination and memory can now begin to fill in many of the other ways in which these techniques have advanced and refined themselves since that time. The index, the concordance, the running head: all of these have medieval antecedents and modern application. Ever since the time of Cassiodorus, we have been at work in Latin and post-Latin culture building a common tree of knowledge, an invisible but powerful structure by which we agree together to organize what we know and to make it accessible. The institutions we call libraries and the catalogues they contain (in whatever form, from old bound books through the familiar cards and down to our On-Line Public Access Catalogue [OPAC] systems of today) are all only manifestations of a larger cultural project: to make knowledge available to non- linear access in as many ways as possible.

    II. After the Codex

    If we reflect for a moment, we will find that a very high percentage of the forms of the printed word we consult most often are not traditional linear books at all. Look around you: tour guides, textbooks, The World Almanac, encyclopedias, dictionaries, phone books, the Physicians' Desk Reference, cookbooks, atlases, Books in Print, Ulrich's International Periodical Directory,[24] the National Union Catalogue. The learned journal, our `serial', belongs properly to the history of the printed rather than the written word, and there are many members of NASIG far more expert than I on that phase of cultural history. I would like to suggest that what I have said already indicates that the history of the journal needs to be considered under two aspects if we are to catch sight of its future with any confidence:

    Seen in this light, the journal's possibilities for enduring contributions are clear. What is equally clear is that the reigning monarch of scholarly publication, the eminent monograph from a distinguished press, is in serious jeopardy. Look at it how you will, the traditional monograph, with its sustained linear argument, its extraordinary high costs of publication and distribution, and its numerous inefficiencies of access only partly retrieved by the assignment of an LC call number, is beginning to look more and more like a great lumbering dinosaur, feeling a bit poorly and looking around for a place to lie down. As library buying habits change and fewer and fewer copies of each title are printed and distributed, the difference between a university press and a vanity press is going to become a finer and finer point of ethereal argument.

    This is not to say that the traditional book will disappear overnight; but surely its presence will fade from the scene.[25] It will survive if only for its prestige, rather the way the leather bound edition of the classics now survives, not at all to be read but to make a statement about the book and about the owner of the book. For a time, academics will be unable to think of another ready way of delegating the responsibility for tenure decisions to anyone else the way they have of late delegated it to university press editorial boards; but even that will pass, new techniques for arbitrariness and avoidance will emerge, and young scholars will no longer speak with such misplaced reverence and awe of the publishing process.

    Other aspects of our learned publishing will fade soon as well. Those aspects of the learned journal that depend on the physical media of printing and binding are evanescent. The `issue', which for convenience yokes together forever items whose only commonality is usually their date of submission, need not any longer govern association.[26] We will no longer refer to published material by page number, and so surrender what is a remarkably imprecise and error-prone form of indexing. Better news is yet to come. Storage of and access to learned journals is one of the principal preoccupations of NASIG. At the moment one touchy point is quantitative: how many copies of an article will be printed, and when? Publishers would like them all printed at once and sold to subscribers; users have no objection to seeing fewer printed and sold and more copies photo- or electro-reproduced and distributed by ILL and other document delivery systems. That is a controversy whose life will be short. Initial `printing' will disappear and any production of hard copy that occurs will be incidental and for the convenience of single end users only.

    It is easy to prognosticate that changes will come to the division of labors among the many journals that exist. The proliferation of journals reflects both the crowded submission lists of the most popular ones and at the same time an urge to provide more specialized information through more narrowly focused collections. Both of those needs and pressures can persist and be met more cheerfully in a post-print world. A popular journal need not, in principle, limit itself by cost and number of pages any longer, but can instead use the time and talents of its editors as the measure of its capacity: how much can they stand? Similarly, the subject association of articles is no longer going to be determined forever by their place of publication. No longer will it be necessary to agonize over whether to put an article in the Journal of Roman Studies or the Journal of Hellenic Studies; in fact, there will be no reason why both labels could not appear on a single article.

    For the likeliest development (and here I am merely guessing) is that the association of articles in a given `journal' will no longer be a physical association and no longer be a condition for publication and distribution. The rest of the world will soon follow the scientific practice of publishing by distribution of something like pre-prints. The `journal' peer reviewing and stamp of approval will come after the fact of distribution, and will exist as a way of helping identify high quality work and work of interest to specific audiences. In that world, the `journal' title will be something like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, applied after the fact; and there will be no reason, intellectual or economic, to deny a single article as many different such seals as editorial boards see fit. Indeed, we can already see articles that would reach different audiences if only they could be published twice in different places. We frown on this because trees and ink and shelf space are scarce resources. But if instead of multiple publication it were a matter merely of multiple electronic tags, then the form of indexing and access-enhancement that comes from identifying an article with the approval given it by a specific editorial board could be made much more valuable.

    If peer reviewing and editorial identity survive, what else in the current world of journals will survive? Here I will make only one suggestion: many learned journals now publish a variety of forms of communication that I will call para-articles. Not learned contributions, peer reviewed and path- breaking, but notices of appointments, reports of meetings, calls for papers, necrologies, forums for discussion of current pedagogical practices related to the journal's subject. That is a form of communication that has been increasingly relegated to association newsletters and the like, and restricted even there, essentially for economic reasons. There is a limit to how much we can print, and so we must print only what is pressing. But the para-article has the important function of providing widespread access to information of a kind that otherwise flourishes mainly in common rooms at well-connected universities; to publish it is a democratic gesture, increasing access for a wider audience. As long as there are LISTSERV discussion groups, I think it unlikely that `journals' will be overrun by mere gossip and chat (but vigilance will be necessary), but they can become even more valuable than they are now as media of genuinely current news. In so doing they will recover some of their earlier function, when delays in publication were slower and press dates closer to the actual date of appearance.

    So what will be new? What can the `journal' do in the electronic world that it could not do in the age of the codex? I began to pull together these remarks expecting to offer bright new and unprecedented hopes. I have surprised myself in finding that this paper comes full circle to where it began, to the possibilities already inherent in the codex, but still not fully exploited. If I return to them now, and sketch how they may more vividly be realized in electronic form, the reader should bear in mind the McLuhanite principle about the content of a new medium being an old medium. These suggestions, by their very rootedness in the past, condemn themselves out of hand as timid, limited, and unimaginative. If they do not seem that way, the reader should bear in mind that a true prophet would be seeing things far stranger than these.

    The first obvious development is that the quality of our non- linear access to information will increase exponentially. To give only a hint of this, consider the difference between using LC subject headings for a subject search on an OPAC and pursuit of the same inquiry using keyword searching. In a world in which the library will cease to be a warehouse and become instead a software system, the value of the institution will lie in the sophistication, versatility, and power of its indexing and searching capacities. We need not wait for the possibilities of artificial intelligence (AI) to manifest themselves to take advantage of intellectually simpler but nonetheless amazingly powerful systems of investigation to lead us through a mass of material to information that suits our needs. If the criteria are a search that reveals a very high percentage of the material we might want if we knew it was all there and that at the same time leads us to relatively few irrelevancies, then we are not far from great advances. The secret is that the end-user's intelligence remains a powerful tool. If a system leads me only close to the information I am looking for, I will recognize it and begin processing it in ways that no machine could. Artificial intelligence someday may begin to do some of the processing that I would do, but as long as my own liveware is available, I need much less than a machine does to make sense of my world.

    But one corollary of that style of searching is that I will not care where I find information, so long as I find it. A graphical display of the arrangement of information on a hard disk reveals that a computer is far less fastidious than a librarian. The information stored so carefully is in fact mashed together in a mighty jumble, pieces of files interleaved with pieces of other files, and bits of erased files (not really erased but merely ignored) strewn between. In that world, preservation of the boundaries separating one package of information from another is necessary only if the end-user needs it, and search strategies that concentrate on the information rather than the source are far more efficient and will thus be more successful. One way to describe this phenomenon is to say that what we call `hyperlinks' between data will become dominant lines of travel from one item to another; but of course, that is already true now and was already true in the medieval codex -- the real user would move from one manuscript to another, and from the indexing canon tables at the front of the gospel book now to one gospel passage, now to another, and back and forth -- if the computer makes it possible to do more of that, and faster, in some way the world is not really changed, but its possibilities are realized.

    But another way of describing this phenomenon is to say that the boundaries that separate one information source from another are of variable value. Users for centuries have been ignoring them when convenient -- consider yourself trying to remember whether you read that book review in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, or TLS, and realize how little the difference often means. When I have a hundred books on my shelf and I want to know when Cosmas Indicopleustes wrote his marvelous treatise in defense of a biblical doctrine of a flat earth, I little care where I find the information, until I have to come back and footnote it -- that is, provide a form of non-linear access for others! And of course any experience at all tells the learned writer how hard it can be to track down again an item once found before in your own library.

    There are other boundaries that will blur as well, but here I think I begin to run beyond the limits of both the reader's patience and my expertise. I will only suggest that, for example, information that is gathered collectively, over time, with minimal consultation and organization but with equal zeal and care by people who have never met each other may wind up making up large and important databases. Here we will encounter what may be the fundamental conflict of interest in scholarly publishing: that between the freedom to speak one's mind and the responsibility to produce information that is assuredly valid and re-usable by others. Freedom of inquiry and speech demands a world in which we can all say what we think, but the need for quality control speaks to a world in which we give power to people who are editors when we like them and censors when we do not. But however that plays out, an important but flawed or preliminary treatment of some vital subject will, by the time it has been worked over, discussed, revised, enhanced, and reworked by as many hands as care to turn to the job will become the ultimate post-modern authorless creation. Keeping the cooks from spoiling the broth will be important, but bringing together all the world's available talent to solve a given problem is a luxury we rarely have today.

    Here I will conclude. A world in which it is not quite clear who the author of a collective, cumulative, and collaborative work of scholarship may sound very novel, but it is also very old. The late middle ages had already created such books, like the famous Glossa Ordinaria,[27] the common and widely disseminated Bible commentary whose origins are still shrouded in much mystery, no two of whose versions were exactly alike, and which continued to grow and live for centuries. We have come since that time to relish and rely upon the fixity of printed information, and that is a fixity that will soon seem suddenly vulnerable. I have every confidence in our collective neurotic ability to cling to the value of that fixity, but at the same time I look forward eagerly to the flexibility and vitality of a medium that, as it plunges forward to the cutting technical edge, still pursues the enthusiasms and uses the technique of the medium that it leaves behind.

    Assiduous study of cultural changes of the kinds we are now living through convinces me of one thing: a determinist reading is only after the fact. It is not possible at this point to say who will succeed in imposing a vision on the future, or how. I accepted NASIG's kind invitation to address this meeting because I believe that the learned journal and its friends offer the forum that has the most opportunities to shape that future in the most exciting ways. But it need not happen that way; I will say only that if the learned journal follows the saber-toothed tiger into the La Brea pits, we will all be the poorer for a loss that need not happen. What is needed is a combination of vision and creativity, with a willingness to take a few risks. My experience tells me that this is a good place to look for those qualities.