Friday, September 16, 2005

Cataloging system as library brain

I'm cross-posting this from the intranet blog at work. I made the connection between the news item and certain contributions to intellectual history made by Leibniz because I'm still reading Neal Stephenson's huge Baroque Cycle and there's lots about Leibniz in the three volumes of it. What follows is the post from the library weblog:

An Oregon public station recently broadcast a news piece about a library that closed for three days to install a new catalog system. See Busy Library System Closed For Three Days. The short item says the catalog system is, essentially, the library's brain.

The analogy of catalog and brain brings to mind Gottfried Leibniz, one of the first men of science to suppose the mind to be a functional part of the brain and not a separate, though immaterial entity. Since he was also one of the first men to create a calculating computer and to develop a programming language based on binary arithmetic, it's quite possible he made the association between the biological operations of the brain and the mechanical operations of the computer. And further, since he was one of the first to attempt the use of numbers to encode knowledge in a universal classification scheme, he might be said to have prepared the way for the digital library controlled by relational database.

Since he was a librarian and a cataloger at that, he certainly was capable of visualizing a catalog system as a library's brain. Though I don't believe he wrote anything to that effect, it's interesting to speculate that he might be the great- great- great-grandfather of today's systems librarians.

{This image shows the library that Leibniz ran in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. Source.}
Leibniz's catalog used author as main-entry. At pretty much the same time, as general archivist of the principality of Brunswick-Lunenburg, he designed a subject-based classification scheme for legal documents.

{The first image shows the Leibniz computer. The second shows Leibniz's system of binary arithmetic which might have been used to program the step-reckoner. Source.}

Although he's not too well known for these efforts to solve cataloging problems, he's very well known as one of the originators of the modern computer. In the early 1670's he made plans for one of the first mechanical calculators, a proto-computer which he called a step-reckoner.

{I think this depicts the numeric basis for Leibniz's universal classification scheme, which he called an alphabet of human thought. I'm not sure about this because the source of the diagram is a web page in German and other sources concerning the sceme are somewhat vague. Source.}
Leibniz's alphabet of human thought was an attempt he made to work out a universal classification scheme for all knowledge, a kind of prototype for online research resources supported by relational databases. He did not finish this work and did not begin the attempt to apply it however.

To effect this alphabet of human thought, Leibniz aimed to establish a numerical scheme: the characteristic numbers for all ideas. He wasn't the first to think of this, nor the first to give up without completing it. But he was probably the first who was capable of foreseeing a primitive precuror of modern-day computer databases. About this effort, he wrote:
There must be invented, I reflected, a kind of alphabet of human thoughts... Through the connection of its letters and the analysis of words which are composed out of them, everything else can be discovered and judged... It took strenuous reflection on my part, but I finally discovered the way.... Once the characteristic numbers are established for most concepts, mankind will then possess a new instrument which will enhance the capabilities of the mind to a far greater extent than optical instruments strengthen the eyes, and will supersede the microscope and telescope to the same extent that reason is superior to eyesight. Great as is the benefit which the magnetic needle has brought to sailors, far greater will be the benefits which this constellation will bring to all those who ply the seas of investigation and experiment. What further will come out of it, lies within the lap of destiny.

Some sources:

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