David Weinberger
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The underutilized resource beyond lists

29 September 2010

Everyone loves a good list. In fact, we seem to be in the midst of List Mania, due in part to the success of Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto. And why not? When life gets so complicated that it takes 15 steps to find and watch Project Runway, a simple list of what it takes to remove a liver or land a plane is more than welcome. The world’s gotten complex, but we still can only walk through the most complicated maze one step at a time. So, get a walkthrough!

But we like lists beyond their utility. If you want to generate hits on your blog, create a top ten list of something. If you really want to ratchet up your numbers, make sure to leave out one of the most obvious of entries. What, your Top Ten Deadly Fish Movies leaves out Star Wars Phantom Menace with its Colo Claw fish scene? Your Top Ten Crayon Colors forgets about Burnt Orange? Your Top Ten Tattoo Corrections acts as if Johnny Depp never erased the “na” from his “Winona Forever” tat? I must report your inadequate list to everyone I know on Facebook and Twitter! Immediately!

Lists are handy. They’re fun. But they have two weaknesses. First, they’re one-dimensional—although that’s also where much of their utility and charm comes from. Second, lists are usually metadata. In the online world, they preferably link you to what they’re referring to, but even analog lists are almost always some form of name or pointer.

There is a real-world equivalent of a list that consists of data, not metadata: collections. Collections are an underutilized resource, especially in business.

The simplest of collections are mere aggregations. I know someone whose second floor is filled with Barbies in their tidy boxes. The boxes are arranged by some principle I didn’t discern. There is not much more information in that analog collection than there would be in a list of what’s in the collection, except for the weirdness of coming up a stairway and facing what seems to be a particularly severe and overcrowded Barbie penitentiary.

But, even this mere aggregation of Barbies has something that the list of what’s been collected does not. Because the collection is of real things, they are not—cannot be—one-dimensional. Simply because they are real things, they are rich with informational possibilities, the way a mere listing of the collection is not. The list might say merely “Dreamtime Princess Barbie,” but facing the doll in its little cardboard and cellophane cell, you can see that her dress is pink and that she has—surprise!—ballet slippers on.

And that’s just for the most minimal form of collection, an aggregation. At the other end of the spectrum, there are the sorts of collections you find in libraries. The objects in such collections often are rare and hard to find, until a collection centralizes them. The item will obviously be organized in some fairly linear fashion—or perhaps randomly if it’s a closed-stacks environment—but that’s not where they get their value. The physical proximity of all these works enables scholars to pull together subsets to do work they otherwise couldn’t have. The content of such a collection can be explored by active, learned minds, releasing a collective value that otherwise would be scattered across physically dispersed places. The value of the physical collection is in the potential for relationships the human mind can find.

Physical library collections often have even more going for them. They accrete meaning as librarians, curators and content experts (often all the same person) expose the relationships within the works. Perhaps a time line greets the visitor. Perhaps some specimens are displayed with informative labels. Perhaps works are written about the collected materials themselves. Perhaps there is a docent on hand who can answer questions.

On line we have plenty of lists. Knowledge management systems provide many ways we can aggregate works, from virtual bookshelves to libraries within libraries. These all have value. But analog collections, as perfected over the centuries by librarians, provide a rich model outside of libraries as well. A collection of this sort within a business would be curated so that the materials are of high value. The curation could be by an expert or by a crowd, so long as the aim is to produce a quality collection. A collection would attempt to provide a centralized repository or registry of works essential to understanding a topic or subject. The collection would be presumed to be relatively stable over time, not an ever-changing nimbus of what’s hot now. (There’s nothing wrong with such a nimbus. We just have plenty of them, and they’re not how collections of this sort work.) The collection would have access tools that enable people to quickly find what they need. The collection would enmesh its items in a deep web of relationships. The collection would allow the accretion of meaning by users over time.

Each of these properties serves the distinguishing purpose of a collection: to provide a relatively stable center for the collective understanding of a topic or subject of persistent interest. There’s a second purpose as well: to learn as much as we can from what librarians have figured out over centuries of thought and experiment in how to make knowledge grow.