The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity
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A detailed exploration of a historic, one-of-a-kind social archive project.

Lemov (History of Science/Harvard Univ.; World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men, 2005) diligently scrutinizes a long-lost collection of sociological data collected in the mid-20th century. Her excavation was a frustrating one, she notes, due to the data’s whereabouts and its availability, as well as the difficulty in accessing the machines required to view them. The author traces the histories of the many evaluative scientists fascinated with projective testing data in the early 1900s and the subsequent paper trail of diagnostic results in the wake of their human psychological evaluations. Capitalizing on this need to collect social-scientific data was anthropological researcher–turned–Harvard psychologist Bert Kaplan, whose pioneering societal experiments progressed from New Mexico’s Zuni Pueblo to the assemblage of dream data from Native American tribal subjects (augmenting the work of American anthropologist Dorothy Eggan). It also encompassed Rorschach tests, which often revealed the hidden personality traits of participants. All of these findings were then recorded through the then-innovative yet now-vastly-outdated Microcard archival and Readex retrieval system. In her comprehensive text, dense with detailed research and intelligent speculation, Lemov ably deconstructs how the possibility of an archive could even exist in the mid-1900s, why it was stored in the way that it was, how the hybridized data storage devices actually worked, and the way Kaplan’s professional modesty contributed to the eventual evaporation of his legendary project. In what she calls a “parable for our time,” Lemov notes that this database, however obscure, is a reflection on the nature and behavior of modern humanity within an increasingly digitized society.

Unique, well-curated brain food for readers intrigued with the human psyche and how it can be recorded, indexed, and cross-referenced.

Pub Date: Nov. 24th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-300-20952-5
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2015


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