Appleton's Journal contains in its first number a calculation, by Berthelot, the eminent French organic chemist, of the number of combinations which may be made of acids with certain alcohols. He says, if you give each compound, thus possible, a name, and allow a line for each name, and then print 100 lines on a [page, and make volumes of 1,000 pages, and place a million volumes in a library, you would want 14,000 libraries to complete your catalogue. The science of chemistry is perhaps the most striking example of the rapid accumulation of facts so characteristic of the present age. Hosts of investigations in every field of research are unearthing treasures of knowledge and adding them to the accumulated scientific wealth of the world. The burden which the memory is called upon to bear is already so heavy, that it could scarcely be possible for any man, however gifted by nature, to carry with certainty, those pertaining to any one department of science, even though his entire life were devoted to it. This fact explains the increasing demand for works of reference. * Encyclopedias, hand-books, compilations of tables, and various and multiplied helps to memory abound; new books of like character are constantly issued, and those which already exist, need constant revision, to keep pace with the march of discovery. It is quite evident that only a small fraction of the mass of facts can ever be stored up in any individual memory ; the attempt to remember them would occupy thrice the years allot-ed to the life of mankind. If only part can be remembered, it becomes important to know what ought to be remembered, and what must be left to the works of reference. While facts are almost numberless, principles are few. We can then, easily remember principles, and a knowledge of general principles is the key to research in books for facts we do not know ; it is also the means whereby we can test the truth or falsity of the statements contained in such works. It would be strange indeed that errors should not creep into any extended work of reference ; nay, it is strange that so few errors are committed. But if a fact be erroneously stated, the error will almost surely be discovered by considering it with reference to the principles which underlie it. We should therefore first seek to remember principles, and after them, just as many facts as we can. But to every individual there is a choice in the facts which are to be remembered. Those which are of the most frequent application in his business or profession, are the ones he will be most likely to choose to remember, and with good reason. The life-long student (there are a few such still to be found) will choose such facts as he must frequently refer to in his studies. But facts to be most easily remembered, require thorough and careful classification. To classify properly is however a task of skill skill only acquired by a proper appreciation of the true end of all classification, namely, convenient reference. A business man classifies his notes, receipts, letters, etc., and places each kind of document in its proper pigeon hole; but this classification might be carried* so far as to utterly defeat the purpose it is designed to subserve. The pigeon holes might be so multiplied that a letter, or note, or receipt could be picked out of a single bundle sooner than a particular pigeon hole could be found among the entire number. Of course this is supposing a very extreme case, but it illustrates the point we wish, to make, namely, that too much classification is as bad as too little. A great many people have too many pigeon holes in their memories; more have too few ; and a few, those who seem largely gifted by nature in power of memory, have neither too many nor too few; but no single man has room in his memory for everything. All must more or less have recourse to their book shelves. A poor recourse it is in many cases. Down comes a huge volume, the title of which in broad letters on its back, shows that the fugitive fact we are after, is or ought to be within its covers. We turn to the back part to find the index, but we don't see it. Perhaps it is at the beginning. We hopefully turn over the leaves of the book to find it there, and discover nothing but a meager table of contents. We throw down the book in infinite disgust; if we have got to hunt two hours for that fact, unless it be of great importance, we conclude to do Without it We relieve r feelings by heaping anathemas upon the author, who maliciously thought to force us to read his entire work, before we should have our fact. We look for another book. Ah how different! A copious and carefully compiled index by its help we unearth our fact, in less time than we occupied in searching for an index in the former one. Good! We dust it carefully and place it close to hand, and put the other away among the rubbish. As action is the soul of eloquence, so an index is the soul of a book of reference, and we admire both large souled men, and large souled books. Books of reference are a necessity of the age. In fact all books on scientific or technical subjects, are books of reference and are more or less used as such, according to their worth. Authors should not lose sight of this fact. It is not enough that the subject should be ably handled, it should be so arranged that any passage may be found with the greatest facility. When this last and essential requisite is added to merit in other respects, it is a well-tempered, well-sharpened professional tool, which, if lost, or destroyed, is certain to be replaced, to the profit both of the one who manufactured, and him who uses it.
This article was originally published with the title "The Burden of Memory" in Scientific American 20, 16, 249 (April 1869)