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Indexing nature: Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and his fact-gathering strategies

Müller-Wille, Staffan and Scharf, Sara (2009) Indexing nature: Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and his fact-gathering strategies. Working papers on the nature of evidence: how well do 'facts' travel?, Adams, Jon (ed.) (36/08). Department of Economic History, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.

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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). This paper 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. What we thus hope to show in this paper is 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.

Item Type: Monograph (Working Paper)
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2009 The Authors
Divisions: LSE
Subjects: Q Science > QH Natural history
Date Deposited: 13 Nov 2012 09:03
Last Modified: 16 May 2024 11:51
Projects: Large-Scale Technological Change
Funders:, Economic and Social Research Council

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