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Jill Ashby at home with the journals.

Journal of W. Ross Ashby

Ross started writing a journal in May 1928, while he was a 24 year old medical student at Barts Hospital in London. In it he recorded his thoughts, theorems, and goals that would eventually bring him recognition as a pioneer in the fields of cybernetics and systems theory. By the time Ross died in November 1972, after keeping his journal for 44 years, it had 7,189 pages, in 25 volumes.

In their condolence letters to Rosebud, Stafford Beer wrote "Look after Ross's papers. I have no idea what should be done with them, but they are very precious." and Gordon Pask echoed the same concern, writing "Please keep everything he wrote.". For the next 30 years, only members of his family had access to his journals.

Eventually, the family digitized his journals, papers, and correspondence, and in January 2003, gave all his archive material to the British Library, in London. A year later, in March 2004, on the last day of the W. Ross Ashby Centenary Conference, they announced their intention to make his journal available on the Internet. Since 2008, the digitally restored images of all 7,189 pages and 1,600 index cards have been available on this website in various views, with extensive cross-linking that is based on the keywords in Ross's original alphabetical index.

The user interface has been made as intuitive as possible, with links and pop-up information attached to everything that stood still long enough, which means that anyone with a short attention-span doesn't need to read any further than the following list.

To browse Ross's journal, you can perform any of the following:

The rest of this page describes the different views, what they are good for, and how to use them.


Multiple Views

Because Ross wrote his journal sequentially in notebooks, numbered the pages, and indexed the contents, it has been possible to write XSL programs that generate different views of the information in the journal and index. There are ten different views. They are summarized in the following table:

Orientation View                     Description
Volumes Bookshelf Shows the spines and covers of all 25 volumes.
Volume Contains thumbnail images of all pages in each volume.
Keywords Index Page The alphabetical index page contains the Cloud view and the Index view.
Cloud A compact list of all 678 primary keywords, which link to the index entries.
Index Contains all 678 primary index entries, with all secondary terms and links to all related pages, references, and other keyword-oriented views.
Cards Contains images of the index cards for each keyword, together with the corresponding digital transcription and links.
Thumbs Contains thumbnail images of all journal pages that are indexed for each particular keyword. The thumbnails are sorted chronologically and are grouped by year.
Pages Journal Contains the images of Ross's journal pages, generally two pages per scan.
Entries Summaries Contains the text of over 2,300 summaries that Ross wrote at the end of his journal entries.
Categories Other Index The other index contains 830 cards, in 14½ different categories.
Time Timeline Chronologically lists all dated journal pages with the places where Ross was at the time.

Together, these densely interlinked views make it easy to browse purposefully through Ross's journal and indexes.


Bookshelf View

This view shows the spines and covers of all 25 volumes.

It's as if you're visiting Ross and Rosebud at "Westons", the home that they lovingly created from an old village school in Tockington, near Bristol, England, and you're standing in front of the journals, which are on a bookshelf in the Bell Room. Ross is nearby, playing the clarinet, while Rosebud makes a pot of tea, and you run your fingers across the spines of the journals, feeling their coarse textures, as you decide which volume to open first. But when you select a volume, you're sucked backwards out of the Bell Room, across the event horizon, and into cyberspace. Boom!


Volume View

This view contains thumbnail images of all pages in a volume. Above each image are any summaries that Ross wrote, any keywords that he indexed the pages for, and any entries in his other index that reference the pages.

As your eyes dart from page to page to page to page, across summaries, keywords, and diagrams, your mind must re-adjust to the relentless raster of images, colour saturation, and cognitive stimulation that is lighting up every isomorphic corner of your cerebral cortex. — Welcome! — We've been expecting you. This is where you can browse the meticulous mindspace of Ross Ashby.

In this view you can fast-forward in Ross-mindspace-time, through 44 years of his thoughts and ideas, by skim-reading the summaries and keywords.


Index Page

Ross's 860-card alphabetical index has been turned into a single 1 MB page. To search through the entire index (all primary and secondary index terms) in your browser, you can press Control-F. This page contains two views: A keyword cloud and the alphabetically sorted index entries. To illustrate the different views, the following sample screenshots focus on the keyword Entropy.

Keyword Cloud View

At the top of the index page, the Keyword Cloud contains all 678 keywords.

Keyword Index View

Every keyword has an entry in the index that contains the complete transcription of the index cards.

This is the core of the index. From here, you have direct access to all related journal pages, references, and other views.

Keep in mind that Ross did not index the contents of every page, so there are inevitably many journal entries that can only be found by luck or by systematically reading every page in a time period of interest.


Keyword Card View

In this view, images of the original index cards for a particular keyword are displayed with the transcription under them, on which the digital index and all keyword links are based.

This view is useful for checking index text that has been transcribed in [square brackets] because either we couldn't read it properly, or we couldn't type it accurately, or both. If you notice an error in the transcription of an index card, please click the 'Send Index Error Feedback' link for that card to email us, so that we can correct it.


Keyword Thumbs View

This view contains thumbnail images of all the pages that were indexed for a particular keyword. It is ideal for investigating Ross's work one keyword at-a-time. The images are sorted chronologically, and are grouped by year. It reveals how themes weave through the journal across time. You can use this view to see when Ross first started working on a particular topic, and to identify the years in which he was more or less actively working on it.

More importantly, this view shows which other keywords are associated with each page (and any summaries); creating a semantic cluster that gives a much better idea of what the written page content is about compared to using the alphabetical Index.


Journal View

This view contains the images of Ross's journal pages.

After the image of the journal page has finished loading, it is resized to fit the width of your browser's window.


Sumaries View

Ross started to mark the end of each journal entry with a visual doodle, which makes it easy to see where entries begin and end.

In July 1941, he decided to write a summary at the end of each journal entry.

This view contains over 2,300 summaries that Ross wrote at the end of his journal entries. The summary text also appears above the appropriate thumbnails and journal pages. This view offers the most condensed summary of Ross's work. If you are interested in particular keywords, it is worth pressing Control-F to search the summaries for entries that might not be covered by the alphabetical index.


Other Index View

This 830-card index is divided into different subject categories. Click on a category to view all the entries in the category. Category 7 shows that Ross wanted to write a book about the psychiatric applications of Cybernetcs.

The entries generally consist of one sentence and a page reference. All page references link to the appropriate page images, and the entry's text is included above the referenced pages. For entries that reference more than one page, the links included above the pages mean that these related pages are just one click away from each other.


Timeline View

This view lists all dated journal pages. It is useful if you want to find pages that were written on or around a particular date. If known, the place is also listed where Ross was when he wrote the page, which makes this the best view for seeing where Ross was and when.

If you've read all the way down to here without giving up, you'll probably want to take a look at either the alphabetical Index or the Other Index.


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