How do people collect and compile knowledge? From monks transcribing books to encyclopedias to databases
Collecting and compiling knowledge has been an important part of human culture for hundreds of years. From the earliest texts of ancient Rome and Greece, to modern databases where information is stored and available at will, gathering and passing along knowledge continues to be an endeavor undertaken by many.
Early societies used to transfer knowledge and history in the form of poems or stories put to song so they could be memorized. This formed the collective memory of the culture that was then passed down to subsequent generations.
In medieval Europe, books were expensive because they had to be handwritten on parchment paper which was a time-consuming process. Not many people were literate but the educated, from the wealthy to the scholarly to the religious, were able to read and write. Early on this was in Latin, though people spoke other languages and regional dialects. Often it was the job of medieval monks to transcribe The Bible and to copy manuscripts from classical authors. Monasteries often housed works, books and volumes; these formed the basis of libraries where knowledge was amassed. Many monastery libraries had hundreds of books. Later, the concept of lending books to other monasteries, or for personal use, came about.
Encyclopedias are a way of compiling a wealth of information in book form. The entries are arranged alphabetically by topic and provide summaries on the information that makes up the body of knowledge. An encyclopedia contains universal concepts that pertain to many areas of study and provides factual information. The oldest encyclopedia-type work is Naturalis Historia, consisting of 37 books, that strives to capture the natural world. Because encyclopedias cover so much information, they are always multi-volume works.
Encyclopedia Brown started as a series of mystery books (and later became a comic strip and television show). They featured a young, male detective nicknamed “Encyclopedia” because of his knowledge on various topics and logic-using abilities. In the book series that began in 1963, the reader is also given the clues to solve the mystery. The books are known for having factual inconsistencies or logic puzzles that lead to finding the solution.
A modern take on the encyclopedia concept is Wikipedia which exists in an online form. This contains articles on various topics but is searchable so its arrangement is not as important as the way it links to other, related topics. Multiple contributors write and edit entries. But there are concerns about the factual nature of the information provided as people editorialize and add their personal views to both benign and controversial topics.
IBM researchers developed Watson, a “cognitive system,” that was first conceived to compete on the television show “Jeopardy!” by answering questions. The system’s basic idea was for it to detect the important words within the quiz-show question and then to find related concepts within its knowledge bank that might serve as the correct response. It has since evolved to allow people to interact with Watson by asking questions in spoken English and receiving evidence-based responses. In this way it processes natural language (which represents “unstructured data”) to come to answers – and then to learn from the outcomes of the answers. This moves the gathering of knowledge from a static website model, where the links between pages are how we know that the information is related, to a system that evolves as it looks for answers and is able to deliver those responses in a confidence-ranked scale.
Knowledge was once sung to provide it to the next generation. Then it was written to allow people to find it on their own. Now it is housed in computer systems that can retrieve the information for us. As more historical events occur, science provides insights, books are written, etc. the compiling of that knowledge for our collective use will continue.