From Cartography to Card Catalogs [Infographic]

March 28, 2012


This post originally appeared on the Mindjet Blog

In today’s information age, we enjoy all but instant digital access to the world’s collected knowledge. Consider:

• Wikipedia contains more than 19 million articles in some 270 languages.
• Google aims to catalog the world’s supply of printed knowledge by scanning all of the estimated 130 million books published in modern history.
• And the world wide web itself contains more than 7 billion pages.

But unfiltered access to unlimited sources is useless if you can’t find what you need. The development of sophisticated systems of organization—helping us retrieve the one piece of information we need from the endless expanse of data—is one of humanity’s most significant accomplishments (con’d after graphic.)

Click here to see how info has been organized throughout the ages

The History of Information Organization

But it doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves, and very few of us are concerned with the complex algorithms employed by modern search engines. We just want simple search terms (“Pizza + my place + now”) to deliver desired results.

At Mindjet, we also find ourselves wrestling with issues of when did the pizza guy say he would be here, and where is the pizza, and why hasn’t the pizza guy arrived—but we’re also interested in how and why the organization of information, now and throughout history.

One of these things is not like the other

The concept of information organization is simple: bringing like things together and differentiating among them. We do this with all kinds of information: first we organize information cognitively and then systematically so that it can be easily collected, processed, analyzed, identified, recorded, retrieved and rearranged.

The leap between processing this information and presenting it to others is an important one. It is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication—including signs, symbols and language-—that allows us to represent abstract concepts of organization in physical form.

One of the earliest forms of organizing symbols was cartography: the construction and production of maps. Maps developed as intuitive representations of our observed physical surroundings, including overheard descriptions of mountain ranges, traced outlines of creek beds, and collective wisdom about fertile hunting grounds.

But maps didn’t just highlight key geographic and physical features—they also filtered out less essential information. Early cartographers were more concerned with functional rather than physical truth. For example, the Roman Empire didn’t employ geographic maps at all. Travelers instead used an itinerarium—a listing of all of the cities and notable destinations along a particular road network and the distances between them.

Even today, multiple maps of the same physical terrain can look completely different depending upon their intended functional purpose: compare a highway map with a topographic maps, for example. If an interstate traveler and a geologist accidentally switched maps at a roadside pizza stand both would be equally lost.

The science of shelving

Like maps, bibliographies and card catalogs were developed as functional guides to navigate users towards specific destinations via the shortest possible routes.

The most basic bibliographies delineated sources by author, title and subject, and were usually kept in book form until the development of card catalogs. Card catalogs not only outlined basic bibliographic information, but also provided filing locations using the Dewey Decimal System and later the Library of Congress system. This was a critical improvement for both the librarians who sorted and shelved texts and the readers who sought particular information from books and articles.

The rapid expansion of computer memory capacity has meant that more and more information is stored digitally on computer servers and online networks. Lexis-Nexis was introduced in libraries in the early 1980s, providing access to global news sources and government records. JSTOR performed the same function for scholarly journals in the 1990s.

These days, hyperlinks allow immediate access to referenced information, all but eliminating the distance between citation and source.

The optimization of search engines

The rapid expansion of websites on the world wide web in the 1990s provided lots of accessible information but little initial organization.

The Yahoo! search engine was developed in 1994 by two Ph.D. candidates at Stanford named Jerry and David. It was originally a categorized compilation of the students’ favorite websites, organized in a hierarchy rather than as a searchable index of pages.

The biggest innovations in search engine technology came from two more Stanford Ph.D. students, this time named Larry and Sergey. Google was formally launched in 1998 using a search algorithm called “PageRank” that gave numerical weight to pages that were frequently linked to by other pages. The result was a more “relevant” search return that prioritized popularity over prevalence.

As frustrating as web searches can be sometimes, trying to sort through the entire Internet for information without them would simply be unfathomable.

Online storage and delivery in 15 seconds or it’s free

Today’s information age presents an industrial revolution-sized leap in data storage and retrieval. The world’s technological capacity to store information grew from 2.6 exabytes (a unit of computer storage equal to one quintillion bytes) in 1986 to to 295 exabytes in 2007. The ability to transfer and access information freely and instantly presents both challenges and opportunities for businesses and agencies—not least including the learning of new words to describe more and more information (brace yourself for zettabytes).

At Mindjet, we develop software that enables better Information Organization, Idea Collaboration, as well as Personal Empowerment, and Project and Task Management. We want to provide users with a flexible set of tools that can quickly transform brainstorming sessions into detailed action plans, and allow for intuitive and functional organization of data and deadlines.

How do you approach information organization? What tools and software would be most useful for filtering the critical information from endless chatter? Please let us know in the comments section—and hey, the pizza’s here.


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