From Commonplace Books to Index cards: Linnaeus at Work, 1727-1777
SpeakersDr Staffan Mueller-Wille, Research Fellow, Egenis
Organised byCentre for Medical Histoy, HUSS, Amory
VenueThe Centre for Medical HistorySchool of Humanities and Social ScienceAmory BuldingRennes DriveExeterEX4 4RJ Room: Amory 115
Time: 1:00 - 3:00 PM
Early modern naturalists were faced with what has been termed the ‘first bio-information crisis’. A key figure in resolving this crisis was the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1788). The presentation will focus on Linnaeus’s day-to-day working routines on the basis of manuscript material held at the Linnean Society (London). What this material shows is that Linnaeus had to manage a conflict between the need to bring factual information into a fixed order for purposes of retrieval, and the need to integrate new information into that order. A way out of this dilemma was to keep information on particular subjects on separate sheets, which could be reshuffled and complemented by additional sheets. It is only very late in his life, however, that Linnaeus realized the full potential of this technique, by inventing what look like index cards. It therefore seems that one of the main cognitive advantages commonly assigned to writing – the possibility to abstract words and statements from their context and rearrange them freely in lists, tables and filing systems – had to prevail over considerable practical and psychological obstacles. What seems an obvious thing to do in hindsight, e.g. to work with something like index cards, had to be learned through an incessant, painstaking process of experimentation, fact-gathering, and reorganization.