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The Library of Congress > Digital Preservation > News Archive > 250 Years of Blogging

October 27, 2010 -- Robert Darnton, historian and director of the Harvard University libraries, spoke at the Library of Congress on October 15, 2010, on a topic explored in his recent work, The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future.

Darnton titled his talk "Blogging Now & Then (250 Years Ago)."  He observed that modern technology presents information in "small units that strike our consciousness like rain on a windshield."  Blogs, tweets and other Internet sources offer a torrent of fragmented information, much of it focused on scandal and celebrity gossip.  Darnton noted, however, that despite the radical change in how it is distributed, there is nothing new about this type of information or in the level of interest it holds for the public.

Credit: Jacques-Christophe Leblon, Portrait of Louis XV, 1739, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress AA4 Rés., Engraving

King Louis XV and his court were often the subject of published gossip. Credit: Jacques-Christophe Leblon, Portrait of Louis XV, 1739, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress AA4 Rés., Engraving

An early example was the habit of posting satirical poems critical of Vatican officials onto the Pasquino statue in 16th-century Rome.  Darnton stated that this "talking statue" still is used today as a platform for broadcasting "short, slanderous notices."  The practice expanded during the 18th-century when British and French newspapers flourished by presenting disconnected paragraphs focusing on gossip—much of it quite lewd—about the royal family and members of the court. 

"These one-sentence news flashes were recycled nuggets from other sources," he said.  "They were short snippets designed to get attention—much like tweets are today."

Darnton drew these comparisons to illustrate his thesis that people have always had a high degree of interest in piecemeal information, and as a result tidbits circulate as widely as possible using available modes of communication.  He described information ecologies of public noise that evolve along with the means of transmission.  Anecdotes picked up in French cafes once were prized pieces of information,  just as gossip reported on the web is today.

"The anecdotes constituted the early-modern equivalent of a blogosphere, one laced with explosives," wrote Darnton recently in The New York Review of Books (external link) "for on the eve of the Revolution, French readers were consuming as much smut about the private lives of the great as they were reading treatises about the abuse of power."

Darnton also made the point that preserving information fragments is important, often because they form the basis for more fully formed works, including what are regarded as distinguished literature.  He noted that original anecdotes often found their way into books without attribution, and that tracing details to their source was difficult because few snippets originally written in cafes and coffeehouses survive. 

Collecting institutions at first regarded compilations of these snippets as unworthy of attention, although scholars have come to see this information as highly valuable.  Darnton offered praise for the Library as the steward of one of only six copies of one particularly prized compilation.