Information Management in 1912

One of the reasons I just hate the internet is that while searching for something that no longer interests me now, I accidentally clicked on something that I found so mesmerising and intriguing, and yet I really didn’t know why. It is not a subject I am in the least interested in. I wound up downloading it to read it in my Google Book account.

The Official Railway Equipment Register: Volume 27, Issue 5 has been added to your library.

I was searching for something, (actually looking at some equations in Google) and in the results was “The Official Railway Equipment Register” of 1912. I had no idea why that would show up, apart from the fact that there were a lot of numbers in it, and clicked on it, of course. It is basically contains reports from every railroad company in North America in 1912 on what kinds of railroad cars they have, what they are doing, and who are the people making them run.

Long Island's entry for  Official Railway Register of Equipment

A selection from the Official Railway Register of Equipment

It looks like each railway company sent in reports and they were collected into a annual digest. It boggles the mind to imagine how this huge amount of data was actually used. What I was immediately interested in, was the fact that even though there was some sort of template that all of the information was collected in, the choice of fonts, additional logos and illustrations of the cars they handled or manufactured that seem to come from the individual company’s corporate letterhead – they are all different. The rest of the annual contains tariff, fees, and toll tables; railroad car demurrage charges; lists of traffic representatives of mercantile, manufacturing, and industrial interests; the Master Car Builders Association Definitions and Designating Letters; the Code of Rules Governing the Condition of, and Repairs to Freight Cars for the Interchange of Traffic; and even more tables and lists that go on for over a thousand pages – tables, lists, digests, illustrations, and maps.

Chicago Railway

Dig the Chicago style font!

So if you are still reading this posting, and I congratulate you for that, you might be wondering if I have gone totally around the bend. What could this possibly have to do with academic technology? But the reason I am posting this is because the existence of this journal is proof that information over-load is not really a new thing. A large group of people decided that this information was important enough to collect, analyse and share. They sent this huge journal out via post on a regular basis. They used this information to make decisions of every kind. Such information would have been the subject of broader conversations across greater networks via mail, telegraph, and ticker tape, and when I look at it now, I can’t possibly imagine how such huge amounts of information could possibly be used in any useful way. But it was used – the railroads were the machines of the empires of the robber barons. This information was an important node in a vast network that ran the North American continent.underwood It was the job of thousands to put this information together and it was the job of a few hundred to actually use and implement this information. Railroad employees and business men were trained and mentored in how to use this information and how to leverage the networks that kept everything running. It is as if they had all the components of an internet. It was an internet, but one of a different kind in a different era. We have always been doing this, but this is the first time in history that so many have access to the information and the knowledge about how to use it. The information management equation of the last century is now inverse: there are millions providing the information but there are now equally millions who have the ability and the means to access and use that information. Teaching students how to negotiate those networks, how to manage that information (and their own) is one of the single most important things that educators can now be doing. The economic consequences are just as great. Wabash


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