Database of Dreams


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The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity

Rebecca Lemov

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An acclaimed science historian uncovers the fascinating story of a “lost” project to unlock humanity’s common denominator that prefigured the emergence of Big Data

Just a few years before the dawn of the digital age, Harvard psychologist Bert Kaplan set out to build the largest database of sociological information ever assembled. It was the mid-1950s, and social scientists were entranced by the human insights promised by Rorschach tests and other innovative scientific protocols. Kaplan, along with anthropologist A. I. Hallowell and a team of researchers, sought out a varied range of non-European subjects among remote and largely non-literate peoples around the globe. Recording their dreams, stories, and innermost thoughts in a vast database, Kaplan envisioned future researchers accessing the data through the cutting-edge Readex machine. Almost immediately, however, technological developments and the obsolescence of the theoretical framework rendered the project irrelevant, and eventually it was forgotten.

Rebecca Lemov is associate professor of the history of science at Harvard University and past visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She is the author of World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men, named a 2006 New York Times Editor’s Choice. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

"Decades before the Internet, a professor named Bert Kaplan used a soon-to-be-outmoded format called the Microcard to collect and store what he and his many colleagues viewed as the raw data of human experience: Rorschach test results from Pacific islanders; Menominee, Zuni, and Hopi people’s life narratives; the details of Lebanese dreams. How did this strange enterprise prefigure the flood of data we handle—or cannot handle—today? Lemov’s articulately presented story answers this question and more, with stops at the invention of the inkblot personality test, the history of microscopic Bibles, and the troubled anthropology of the American Southwest.  Engaging and clear, Database of Dreams is not a book to forget."
 STEPHEN BURT, author of Belmont: Poems

"Much of published history is a herd-path through the quotidian with an occasional but brief excursion into something less familiar. Rebecca Lemov is an explorer and adventurer. Gone is the herd-path. Instead, we have a voyage into an unknown (at least to me) landscape: Douglas M. Kelley, Goering's Rorschach tests, and a strange pair of cyanide-assisted suicides; Dorothy Eggan and Hopi dreams; George and Louise Spindler and the 'expressive autobiographical interview.’ As a collector of those who collect dreams, Lemov has created a dream-collection of her own. An amazing and unique book—a book that in many ways redefines how we think about history."
ERROL MORRIS, director of The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

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

"Humane, hilarious, and smart . . . The book shows that, although some things are forgotten because they are unimportant, others lose importance because they are forgotten."—Science

"Lemov, a professor of the History of Science at Harvard, recollects with flair, affection and dazzling detail, a post World War II project to do away with mornings after like this one: those episodes of mourning that follow some lost telling of some last secret of some human heart. . . . Riveting."—New Republic

"A compelling account."—Wall Street Journal

"Lemov’s contribution informs our understanding not only of how psychological research is managed but also of our own daily contributions, voluntary and otherwise, to a 'forever' database already being probed in increasingly intimate fashion."—Psychology Today

“Lemov has told a remarkably new story, and one that casts familiar figures in new light.”—David A. Varel, Technology and Culture
ISBN: 9780300209525
Publication Date: November 24, 2015
368 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4

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The online version of Database of Dreams is made available under a Creative Commons license for use that is noncommercial. The terms of the license are set forth at This free copy of the work is also made possible by the Arcadia, a UK grant-making fund whose mission is to protect endangered culture and nature and to further open access to scholarly and cultural materials.

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