Nothing new…

The BBC news website this morning features a post on data and how we sift it. In it Lisa Jardine mentions a scene in the 1997 book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, where Harry creeps into the reserve section of the library in the dead of night in order to uncover vital information. Any modern kid, whether in Hogwarts or elsewhere, would surely have stayed in bed and googled it from their smartphone.

Mind you, as Jardine points out, as long as there have been books of information to read, there have been decisions to make  about how to process and retain the things we learn from them. A proliferation of printed books meant a proliferation of information, and that meant making decisions about where and how to store the things you learnt from the books. At this point, enter the Placcius Cabinet, pictured below. This cabinet featured 3000 lettered hooks on which information garnered from books could be hung and moved around. I suppose it was a kind of wooden hard drive:


Here’s where it gets interesting, though. This cabinet was first referred to by Vincent Placcius in a book in 1689. However, it is by no means certain that he was the inventor of said cabinet – although it now bears his name. Information and ideas, whether disseminated in print or pixels, have a habit of sprouting legs and running away from their creators. This is both the blessing and curse of human thought, surely?

Personally, I think the Hogwarts library should have computer terminals that look just like the Placcius Cabinet. Then again, Hogwarts is J.K Rowling’s idea, not mine!