Specialized information hoarding

I get the greatest blog ideas from my lunch companions lately. This week it was a few former BMC writers. At BMC, the writers have an annual book exchange around the holiday time, and it was so popular we sometimes repeat it mid-year.

At our book exchange, everyone would bring a wrapped book, place it in a pile, then draw a number out of the hat. The person who drew the lowest number would chose from the pile, unwrap the book, read the description, and then the person with the next number would choose to either “steal” the already unwrapped book or take from the pile. The person who drew the highest number would have many unwrapped book titles to choose from.

For a few exchanges in a row, Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell appeared in the book exchange pile, so all four of us at this lunch had read and enjoyed the book very much.

Could you hoard all the information on a topic if you wanted to?

uspbkjacket_w150.jpgJonathon Strange & Mr Norrell is a wonderful fantastical story about the return of magic to England due to the two people in the title (well, and due to other forces). There are humourous parts, and the fun of the book is that each magician has a very different approach to learning magic again. One hoards all the books about magic. ALL the books. This aspect of information hoarding was especially interesting to us writers at our lunch discussion. Could you even do that in modern day – collect all the books about a certain topic (albeit a narrow focus?) No way.

Another observation is that the cautious one is the one who hoards all the information and only very reluctantly shares it with his reckless pupil. I’m working on a panel discussion on collaboration and I can’t help but remember this book and how fruitless and unsuccessful it was for Mr Norrell to attempt to keep all the books on magic in a single library. The similarity I would draw is how difficult and unhelpful it is to try to write all the information and hoard your topics, never to be remixed into other deliverables.

If the information is hoarded, how is it released to the wild?

Another story that came up in the same week of lunchtime conversations was one from Don Day. He has had a certain camera since he was in high school, and never knew that much about it. He has taken it apart numerous times, and looked for books about the camera, searched on the web with all the identifying text he could find inside the camera, and tried to find any additional information about it, but never found out more.

But! This past year, when someone (I believe the book’s author) uploaded several chapters from a book about specialized vintage cameras to the Internet and it became indexed by Google, Don learned that his old camera that he couldn’t previously identify is worth a couple thousand dollars! It was like the TV show, Antiques Roadshow, had delivered an appraiser to Don through the Internet.

Don’s love of cameras comes full circle in the information sharing sense. Don maintains a wiki about cameras called “Light of Day” and has wonderful photos there. I like this quote from Don’s bio in a wiki entry about the Central Texas DITA User’s Group meeting for October. “I work in high tech, but I love simple things, which is why I feel that an early camera, made of leather and wood, but fitted with a precisely-polished lens, is such a great complement to my own life experience.”

With these two tales of information collection, I hope you see the beauty of share and share alike. Any one else have a great story of information suddenly revealing itself? Or a tale of an information hoarder who met with trouble?


  • January 9, 2008 - 9:42 pm | Permalink

    What a good memory you have, Anne! Prodded by the thought that I should probably get my story out in my own words, I have copied it into my “Light of Day” wiki, where hopefully you can retrace the excitement of that journey of discovery:

    This story links to a page of photos that I took this fall using this camera. Now, if you have used only a digital camera before, imagine having no preview screen, only 24 shots per roll of film (er, memory card in digital parlance), and no autofocus or autoexposure. Against odds like that, is it possible to ever take a useful picture? I’ll just smile and let that camera speak for itself. 😉

    So, Anne, one of the best things about the Internet has been the ability to learn things and make connections like never before, but you nailed it on the point that the experience is only as good as the willingness to make that information available.

    Here now is a counterthought: The information I learned was from a chapter update for a book that has been in print since 1985, Peter Dechert’s “Canon Rangefinder Cameras 1933-68.” Peter could have held out for putting that information into a revised version of his book, or even made it into a monograph for online purchase. Had he decided to do so, would we have considered him a hoarder of that information? In an age where the mantra is “information wants to be free,” when is it more responsible to convert that information into a bit of opportunity, and should we judge anyone for doing so?

  • January 10, 2008 - 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Don – I’m so glad you came by and gave us the details. That picture of you from 1968 is priceless!

    In print since 1985, eh? That is one value-packed book. I applaud his decision to set the information free. I’d say that by doing so, he has opened an opportunity for conversation about the information… i.e. you should tell Peter Dechert the story, or see if he finds the story online himself. That personal connection may be more valuable than money he would make from a monograph available by online purchases. But I say that because I just completed reading Anne Zelenka’s Connect! book where she values the personal connection over the money. But I digress…. thanks so much for telling the story!

  • January 10, 2008 - 9:26 pm | Permalink

    The rest of the story, Anne:

    And I worded the “in print” part wrong. 1985 was the published date of his book, but it has not been reprinted since. That is why he says he chose to release his updates in Web form–there was not a likelihood of an actual reprinting, and the updates were important for collectors to know.

    So herein is another economic consideration for information in print–clearly, a limited printing of a prized edition is great for collectors. How do we balance that against the value of being able to freely read that information somewhere? I know–its a debate that has no good answer, unless you consider the wonderful invention called the Library.

    Today’s Austin newspaper had a story about the growing practice of hoarding rare wines as investments more than for appreciation of the vintage bouquets. There are collections of mint coins that will never buy anything. Perhaps Mr. Norrell was really a collector at heart, investing in information. (I’m playing devil’s advocate here, of course, but collectors ARE sincere about their passions, which are always counter to those who believe “things are for using.”)

  • Leave a Reply