REVIEWS: Library and Information Science Research
Electronic Journal ISSN 1058-6768
2009 Volume 19 Issue 1; March

in this issue:

Rayward, W. Boyd (Ed.). (2008) European Modernism and the Information Society: Informing the Present, Understanding the Past.


Rayward, W. Boyd (Ed.). (2008). European Modernism and the Information Society: Informing the Present, Understanding the Past. Aldershot, Hants, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate. 343pp. ISBN: 978-0-7546-4928-1 $114.95.

For information scientists, and others working in related fields, the idea of an information society is seen as something novel and a product of the very recent past. A significant view in the historiography of information science sees our information society as a development of the last 50 years with the processing capabilities of the computer leading the way. The United States is often seen as the source of innovation that has made the current age possible. American thinkers like Vannevar Bush, Eugene Garfield, Allen Kent, and Frederick Kilgour are often regarded as the pioneers and fathers of the contemporary information scene.

This view remains persistent but has hardly gone unchallenged. A critical skepticism has begun to emerge about the claims of our information society being unique and fundamentally different from all things that went before. Many scholars have emphasized continuities suggesting the possibility of information societies that have existed in the distant past. The primacy of the United States in the development of information science has also been questioned, and earlier achievements in other countries recognized as important antecedents to later developments. A significant collection of writings reflecting this historiography can be found in European Modernism and the Information Society: Informing the Present, Understanding the Past edited by W. Boyd Rayward. This book consists of published papers from a conference held at the University of Illinois in May 2005 that examined the efforts of an important group of European thinkers to systematize, disseminate, and manage information in the period 1890-1940. The contributors come from a diverse range of disciplines that would include history, philosophy, library science, linguistics, urban planning, and literary studies.    

In responding to the challenges of this period, a group of European intellectuals began to systematically think about ways in which knowledge might be used to benefit a rapidly changing society. These intellectuals often labeled collectively as the documentation movement must be seen as an important theme of the book. The documentation movement sought to apply modernist and rational approaches to issues of bibliographic control, information retrieval and access to knowledge globally. Most of the chapters deal with particular developments in the documentation movement and the key people associated with it like H.G. Wells, L.S. Last, Suzanne Briet, Patrick Geddes, Henri La Fontaine, Otto Neurath, Franz Maria Feldhaus, Emmanuel Goldberg, and Wilhelm Ostwald. These men and women were librarians, industrialists, scientists, architects, sociologists, and literary figures. Much of their work helped to set lasting standards for collaborative knowledge networks, centralized document depositories, library organization, new systems of scholarly publication, and the application of technology to information problems.

Many of the figures in the documentation movement had an association with Paul Otlet an important early theorist of knowledge organization. Otlet is really the central figure of the book with four chapters dealing with him directly and most of the others acknowledging his strong intellectual influence. Along with Henri La Fontaine, Otlet co-founded in 1895 the International Institute of Bibliography that is regarded as the beginning of the documentation movement. Otlet attempted to create a universal catalog of published knowledge that would be the heart of a universal library or Mundanneum that would allow access to information on a global scale. A broader view of the document as moving beyond what is printed to include things like pictures, models, diagrams, and audio-visual imagines also holds a central place in Otlet’s thought. The authors of the chapters spend considerable time showing that the efforts of Otlet were part of a broader social movement that saw a responsibility in using knowledge to promote progress, social welfare, efficiency, and world peace. These goals have to be seen as part of the modernist venture and perhaps the most important legacy of Otlet and the documentation movement he helped establish.

European Modernism and the Information Society succeeds in showing the deep historical and European antecedents to the information society as we understand it today. This book would be of great interest to anyone that is involved in the information professions, and for those with a particular interest in the origins of information science this would be essential reading. Certainly this book would be a welcome addition to any academic library, and may be a particularly good selection for collections that specialize in library and information science.

Joseph Straw
Reference Librarian
Marietta College