Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

Infrastructural Frameworks for Global Knowledge

Mission by McNamara
STUDENT ART COMPETITION  - “MIssion”  By Krista McNamara

John Leslie King


When we refer to the word infrastructure, we usually think of physical artifact infrastructures such as bridges, highways, buildings, and so on.  And when we use the phrase “infrastructure failure,” we typically think of bridges collapsing, highway overpasses crumbling, and buildings imploding. Interestingly enough, there is a different kind of physical infrastructure, commonly referred to as knowledge infrastructure, which has existed for centuries. This article examines the evolution of knowledge infrastructure, from its origin in manuscripts, through the printing press and collectors, to digital libraries, and to raise two concerns surrounding the development of infrastructural frameworks for global knowledge.

The Umayyad Dynasty

To understand the genesis of knowledge infrastructure, we need to go back to the middle of the 8th  Century, when the Mayan Dynasty (located on what is now the Iberian Peninsula of Spain) was established by Islamic forces from Morocco.  Soon after the establishment of the empire, a primary library was formed in the ancient city of Toledo. The city of Toledo is considered by some to be the seat of learning in the Visigoth Empire and actually played an important role in the development of knowledge infrastructure earlier on in history. In fact,  the Visigoth code of law, which ultimately influenced the evolution of European law, was created in Toledo.
             It was in this ancient city, in the library of Toledo, that the majority of the ancient Greek manuscripts were housed. Saved through Islamic tradition, most of the corpus of ancient Greece was retained, along with a large number of Arab writings in the areas of science, astronomy, and medicine.

The Printing Press

We also know that along the way, in the mid 15th Century, the moveable type printing press was invented. The publication of the 42 Line Bible during this period was quite a startling social change. Not too long afterwards, Martin Luther published his 95 Theses and this began The Reformation and the Protestant Revolution. And it was between the establishment of the 42 Line Bible and Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses that the Archbishop of Mainz drove all of the printers out of Mainz. The Archbishop was a very powerful person, one of the five electors of the Holy Roman Emperor, and he felt that printing posed a very grave political danger to the established hierarchy of the time.

            Fortuitously, because the Archbishop drove the printers out of Mainz, printers were dispersed all over northern Europe, into the U.K., and up into the Scandinavian countries. As printers were “resettled,” they actually spread the technology of printing throughout Europe and the British Isles.

It is interesting to note that also during this period, at the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church issued a literacy mandate for all clergy. Catholic leaders realized that one of the reasons that Protestantism was spreading so quickly was that            all Protestant clergy were literate. Up until that time, Catholic clergy had not been required to be literate. From that point forward, the primary force for literacy in the world was the Christian Evangelical faith. Islamic faith played a lesser role in the spread of literacy, but in combination with the Christian movement, it is noted that religious forces were the most significant drivers in the spread of literacy over the next several centuries.

The Gesta Grayorum

            Indexing forward to the latter part of the 16th Century, we encounter the Gesta Grayorum. Written by Frances Bacon and performed as a play at a place called Gray’s Inn, this piece of entertainment shows us the historical origin of what we now call a knowledge infrastructure.

In the play, the primary interlocutor is asked by a prince, “How do I become a knowledgeable person?” Bacon responds that you must have a most perfect and general library, a spacious, wonderful garden, a stable of all rare beasts and birds, two ponds, one for fresh water, one for salt water, a goodly huge cabinet for artifacts and natural objects, and a still-house with mills, instruments, furnaces, and vessels.  Using today’s terms, he is describing a library, a botanical garden, a zoo, an aquarium, a museum, and a laboratory. Through this story, Bacon foretells the development of a sort of modern day knowledge infrastructure, perhaps in a university setting.

Collecting as Inquiry

Collecting as a form of inquiry became an activity of primary importance during the 1600s. Between 1610 and 1662, two gardeners of the royal families in Europe and Great Britain, John Tradescant and his son, also named John, collected a wide variety of specimens from the medicinal and botanical gardens under their care. They established a reputation as sophisticated, organized collectors and used this status to expand where and how they collected specimens. Specifically, the British Admiralty recognized the importance of the Tradescants’ work and was compelled to issue an order to the entire fleet that all ships were to collect anything that was “strange” and to bring it back for evaluation.

The Tradescants then formed the “Ark,” a venue in London where the public could view their collection. For a minimal entrance fee, individuals were admitted to the Ark to see what was considered a very comprehensive group of systematically collected objects.  This new form of entertainment stimulated a new era of collecting. In fact, systematic collecting became a popular activity throughout the royal courts of Europe. Objects were gathered, stored, and displayed in units called cabinets of curiosity, or Wunderkammern ( “wonder cabinets”), and were often considered highly elaborate works of art.

Sir Elias Ashmole

In the mid 17th  Century, Sir  Elias Ashmole proposed to his colleague John Tradescant Jr., that a catalog ought to be made of this collection. Together they created and published such a catalog, the Musaeum Tradescantianum, in 1656. This publication spawned other, similar catalogs for other cabinets of curiosity throughout Europe. The circulation of these catalogs was the first instance of systematic scientific information disseminated among the population of interested parties. Eventually, Sir Ashmole donated this collection and the respective catalogs to Oxford University. Named the Ashmolean Museum, this facility is generally recognized as the first scientific museum in the world.


Fast forward to the year 1822.  A large lizard-like skeleton was unearthed in a part of Suffolk County in the United Kingdom. It was massive and unlike anything anyone had seen before. Dubbed Iguanodon, this bone structure was transported around the United Kingdom as a sort of sideshow, a unique form of entertainment for spectators throughout the area. Obviously, people speculated about the origin of this huge creature and tried to tie it back to their understanding of the traditional Christian Biblical flood. Could this creature have been buried during the flood when Noah was instructed to gather pairs of every type of animal on earth? Iguanodon’s existence and speculation about its origin begged for more discussion. Why wasn’t this animal saved?  Was it too large or too dangerous to be sequestered on the life saving ark? Iguanodon created such a sensation that people began to question more seriously what they believed about the origin of living creatures.  This was at a time when geologists were rethinking the geologic record, especially with regard to fossils.  Amusement and fascination with the very tangible Iguanodon spurred on the public interest in the fossil record. Subsequently, others became involved in systematic collection and in hypothesizing about the nature and origin of these collections. Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 dealt extensively with the fossil record and can be indirectly linked to evolutionary theories stemming from the discovery of Iguanodon.

Systematic Collection of Documents, Libraries, Zoos, Aquariums

            Since the early 1800s, society has invested significant time, energy, and money in the systematic collection of documents, of botanical garden specimens, of animals (zoos), and so forth.  During the 19th Century, this whole systematic collecting enterprise really came to a head. Andrew Carnegie, the second wealthiest person in the history of the United States, gave away enough money to build 2,800 public libraries, with the majority of them in America. This constitutes one of the largest acts of philanthropy in history, and played a huge role in the establishment of the modern knowledge infrastructure of the U.S.

Similar kinds of investments in the form of zoos, aquariums, and other types of animal habitat preserves have been formed since the 19th  Century. As a society, the creation of a substantial corpus of this scientific knowledge infrastructure via these collections helps us to better understand the world in which we live.


            The university is a very powerful example of a knowledge infrastructure. Traditionally, it was a place where people came to study, learn, and ponder in a fairly secluded, academically isolated environment.  With the advent of increased public access to higher education, a larger portion of the population could enjoy the benefits of intensive study. This is marked by a graduation where students cross the threshold back into the “real world” to apply their education in leading productive lives. This is the model we are using today.

However, it has been suggested that universities are headed in a different direction. Perhaps a new model for the university will be one that is a less cloistered structure, where the university is actually going to be out in the world, more integrated with society than has traditionally been the case.

Digital Libraries

If you do a GoogleTM  search for the string, “digital library,” you will get literally millions of hits. If you go through the “hits list” with the library world in mind, and pick out the ones that are considered high profile, well-known, library institutions, you get a list of about 30.  All of these organizations claim to have very heavy investments in digital libraries.

There is a notable project currently underway that is quite important in the digital library arena. It is a partnership between GoogleTM  and (primarily) the University of Michigan where the entire university library, consisting of eight million volumes, is being digitally scanned at a rate of 5,000 volumes a week. This digitizing rate is expected to improve in the near future, so it is not unrealistic to expect to have the entire corpus of the University of Michigan library indexed by the end of the decade, as well as segments of the Stanford Library, the New York Public Library, Harvard University Library, and the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Digital information is now going to be made more readily available to the public. However, as one might imagine, there are significant issues of intellectual property associated with this access shift.  Scores of publishers have concerns about what this means in the short and long run. However, one can argue that this is an example of a change in axis that’s similar to what happened with the fall of Toledo at the end of the 11th Century, and again with the rise of the printing press.

Conclusion: Two Concerns

This change in axis of the digital library creates two concerns. The first is the concept referred to as “bundling.”  The IBM 360 computer system is an historical illustration or example of the problem of “bundling.”  All of the hardware and software elements of the IBM 360 were “bundled”—you had to have all the elements together, and if you were missing any of them, you did not get the system benefits.  This created a long string of anti-trust conflicts for IBM, and IBM eventually lost that battle.  The issue for libraries is somewhat different.  A library that is on the Internet might superficially appear to have all of the strength of a traditional library, yet be missing important elements that have traditionally been “bundled” in the library – things such as careful selection, bibliographic integration, and preservation.  A huge investment has been made in determining the difference between a good information source and a poor information source, and this has been bundled into the traditional library.  Will this strength survive in digital libraries?  This is an important societal issue that needs to be addressed as we go forward.

The second concern is the relationship between social surplus and the cultural institutions that provide our knowledge infrastructure. This can best be described as a sort of twist that has occurred in the psychology of the business over the last 75 or 80 years. There is a shared societal notion that when hard-work and know-how come together, they generate economic development and economic growth. Economic development and growth in turn create a social surplus whereby society can afford cultural institutions such as libraries, art galleries, zoos, and museums, that make up our knowledge infrastructure.  However, this notion is completely backwards. The cultural institutions are NOT the consequence of the social surplus—they are what caused the social surplus. Furthermore, these are crucial investments that must continue to be made. With time, these cultural institutions are going to take on new forms, but in thinking about them primarily as cultural institutions that live off of the society’s generated surplus, we run the risk of under-investing and under-recognizing their value in shaping society.


This article is derived from a transcription of Professor King’s presentation at the Digital Divide or Digital Commons Conference.  The editor wishes to acknowledge Altus Learning Systems for the automatic transcription of the presentation and Karen Beronsky for editing the transcription.

About the Author

John King

John King is dean and professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan.  His research addresses the problems of developing high-level requirements for information systems design and implementation in strongly institutionalized production sectors.  King served for 20 years on the faculties of computer science and management at UC Irvine before coming to Michigan, and was a Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School. In recent years he has been a senior scientific advisor to the National Science Foundation, and an outside advisor to many IT-related programs in universities in the U.S. and internationally.

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