I heard of Big Data. Does that mean at one time there was Big Paper?

When Search Engines Were Your Feet

Prior to the electronic storage of data, the primary medium for recording information was (and for many still is) paper.  Big Data is focused on what can be done with the massive amounts of data organizations are creating and collecting.  I was wondering if, at one time, there was a similar challenge in regards to a massive volume of paper?  And if so, what were the impacts?

The Library of Congress houses 103 million items: books (about 20 million), films, maps, photographs, music, manuscripts, and graphics–from all over the world.  Clearly the amassing of so much material must have created organizational and operational challenges that never existed before.  There were two impacts of interest.

First, as the saying goes, ‘quantity has a quality all its own’.  The size and scope of the collections had a significant impact on American scholarship and libraries throughout the country.  This was achieved by:

  • Making the Library’s holdings accessible.
  • Providing standardization to bibliographic constructs that were adopted nationally.

Herbert Putnam was the Librarian of Congress from 1899 to 1939.  He created catalogs of cards that detailed the Library’s holdings.  These were made available to libraries across the country.  He established inter-loan services amongst libraries so resources could be shared.  As a result of sharing, libraries adopted the Library of Congress’ bibliographic methods.

Second, in 1876, Melvil Dewey published what would become known as the Dewey Decimal System for the classification of library holdings.  By 1927, the Dewey Decimal System was used in approximately 96% public libraries and 89% of college libraries.  By popular request, in 1930, the Library of Congress adopted he Dewey Decimal System.  The Dewey Decimal numbering were added on nearly all of the Library of Congress card catalogs.  In this situation, it was the Library of Congress being impacted by a smaller, outside idea.

In regards to Big Data, some parallels can be drawn.  While data does not require the physical co-location of assets like the Library of Congress, the sheer size of these holdings will impact how organizations see themselves.  Frameworks created to understand the Big Data holdings will leak out to the operations of an organization.  A restructuring of how one thinks about the business will occur.    In addition, the massive investments that Big Data require can be impacted by external forces quickly and rapidly, possibly rendering them obsolete.  Flexibility is a key element in creating a Big Data architecture.

Of course, all this begs the question, was there ever Big Inscribed Tablets?

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