B  U  L  L  E  T  I  N

of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 31, No. 4    April/May 2005

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Editor’s Note: Boyd Rayward was the recipient of the ASIS&T Research Award for 2004. The award honors outstanding research contributions in the field of information science.

The Historical Development of Information Infrastructures and the Dissemination of Knowledge: A Personal Reflection

by W. Boyd Rayward

Boyd Rayward is research professor in the GSLIS, University of Illinois, where he can be reached at 501 E. Daniel St., Champaign, IL 61820; phone: 217-244-9741; email: wrayward@alexis.lis.uiuc.edu

My research over the years has focused on historical questions related to library and information science as providing the intellectual underpinning of a variety of professional practices related to the dissemination and use of information. I have published a number of historical studies examining utopian schemes for managing knowledge, the evolution of institutionalized or organizational aspects of information infrastructure (as represented especially by libraries, museums and systems for the international organization and dissemination of information), and the emergence of what I think of as an interdisciplinenowadays often designated library and information science concerned with the study of these phenomena.

Studies of the Life and Work of Paul Otlet

The Universe of Information: The Work of Paul Otlet for Documentation and International Organization was an initial study of a hitherto neglected figure. A Russian translation of this book was published in 1977 and a Spanish edition in 1996. With the advent of the Internet and the Web, it has become clear how pioneering and important historically the work of Paul Otlet and his colleagues was. It seems yet even more relevant today with the recently announced agreement between Google and a number of research libraries to digitize and make their collections available through the Web. I have argued that in Otlet’s world of paper, card and cabinet technology he provided a theoretical basis for, and described many of the functionalities characteristic of, today's information technology and the uses to which it has been put. Two articles that might be mentioned in this context are “Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext,” and "The origins of information science and the International Institute of Bibliography/International Federation of Documentation (FID).” Both articles were reprinted in ASIS&T’s Historical Studies in Information Science.

Otlet’s innovative thinking encourages us to question and to broaden our understanding of what constitutes a document. His technological experiments and speculations suggest how clearly he understood that technology limits not only what we can do but also what we realize is possible in the management of information and that, reciprocally, technology can open up what we can think as well as what we can do. Many of the failures he experienced and his conceptual struggles with them also made him acutely aware that managing and deploying information are profoundly social processes that are embedded in political and ideological structures of various kinds. Otlet’s Traité de Documentation is, for me, the first systematic information science treatise. I believe that his ideas have a historical role in our understanding of the emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web and the functionalities they represent that is as important as any of the roles attributed to such pioneering and iconic figures as H.G. Wells, Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson and others. The World Wide Web: how readily he would have embraced this simple evocative locution for what he called the International Network for Universal Documentation!

International Organization and Dissemination of Knowledge: Selected Essays of Paul Otlet was designed to make some of his thinking available in the English-speaking world. A collection of my own papers on Otlet-related matters has been translated by Pilar Arnau Rived into Spanish as Hasta la Documentacion Electronica. A recent article, "Knowledge Organization and a New World Polity: The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Ideas of Paul Otlet," is an attempt to assess the historiography that has developed around Otlet and his work in the last 25 years or so and introduces the Otlet-themed issue of the bi-lingual Transnational Associations/Associations Transnationales, the journal of the Union of International Associations.

Boyd Rayward at the 2004 ASIS&T Annual Meeting where he accepted the ASIS&T Research Award

Boyd Rayward at the 2004 ASIS&T Annual Meeting where he accepted the ASIS&T Research Award

Historiographical Questions Related to Library and Information Science

My studies of Otlet's work made me aware that asking, “What is a library or bibliography or information or librarianship or library and information science?” is to ask interesting historically contingent questions. My first exploration of some of these questions took a kind of “evolutionist” view in "The Development of Library and Information Science: Disciplinary Differentiation, Competition and Convergence," in Machlup and Mansfield’s The Study of Information: Interdisciplinary Messages. Later in "The History and Historiography of Information Science: Some Reflections," which introduced an issue that I edited of Information Processing and Management on the history of information science, I tried to give a broader view of what I saw as the nature of information and the roles and functions of the systems that we have devised as a society to manage information, of which the library is an historically important example. I think of all of these elements as society’s information infrastructure – before the term was taken over and limited in its designation by the telecommunications industry (“History and Historiography of Information Science”). The first of two more recent studies explores the idea of emergent communities that are both national and international in their interest in historical study of information systems and science, while the second explores the idea of how we might think about pioneers in a field like library and information science (“Scientific and Technological Information Systems” and “When and Why Is a Pioneer?”).

The advent of the computer, telecommunications, the Internet and the Web has profoundly affected access to and systems for the management of information. These developments represent the emergence of a new and to some degree revolutionary communications infrastructure. Libraries are necessarily a part of it. I have tried to examine the initial confrontation between what were for some time two antagonistic groups. The first group was librarians and libraries as organizations formed by and within complex, deeply rooted traditions of codified professional practice and belief. The second group was computer scientists and engineers who had only relatively recently descended onto the world of work, vigorously touting the miracles that their revolutionary new machines could produce. These new innovations seemed to promise so much to librarians, who were filled with anxiety at the escalating costs and the volume of materials they confronted and alive with hope from what was promised; I try to explain why in the event so little was produced by computer scientists and engineers – at least at first. What was the nature of the attitudes, expectations and practices that led to collisions within these two communities of interest and what was needed for partial assimilation of one by the other or at least accommodation between them to be achieved? An attempt to answer such questions is “A History of Computer Applications in Libraries: Prolegomena” that introduced a two-issue compilation of articles on the history of computing in libraries for the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.

I have also argued that the current developments in information technology allow us to examine museums and archives as well as libraries in a new light. As the boundaries between them as organizations begin to blur in the digital world, I suggest that we can begin to conceptualize their functions as interrelated in new (and old) ways (“Electronic Information and Functional Integration,” “From Docent to Cyber Docent”).

Future Directions

My aim is to seek to further develop and to integrate two sets of historically separate studies. One has elements that are focused on the mid and latter half of the 17th century in England and France. The other has elements that are focused on the period in Europe between the two world wars in the 20th century. Both were periods of epistemic transition, to echo Foucault, in which great changes were beginning to appear in the information infrastructure of the time. These changes reflected profound disturbances in society and equally profound changes in the nature and speed of knowledge production and dissemination.

Toward the end of the first period we are beginning to see emerge from the epistolatory practices and ideology of the "Republic of Letters," new approaches to scientific publishing and scholarly communication, centered at least initially in new scientific academies and later scholarly associations, that were eventually to become fundamental to the creation and advancement of modern science and scholarship. From the floods of pamphlets and broadsides of the period, we see newspapers and popular journals, as we will know them, beginning to emerge and to differentiate functions and audiences. What will eventually become systems of the book trade and later official national bibliography are adumbrated. The need in the national capitals and in regional centers for new social settings within which the informal exchange of information can take place (but which also introduce some kind structure for what might be called personal communicative relationships in the world of letters and learning) is becoming apparent. This structure is reflected in the interests, relationships and behaviors of the clienteles – the habitués of particular bookshops, aristocratic salons and drawing rooms, coffee shops and even alehouses of the time. The diverse functions that initially characterized these locales were eventually and perhaps relatively quickly supplanted by new forms of publication and new and highly differentiated bibliothecal organizational formations, one of the most enduring of which will be the public library.

The second period is characterized by the existence of fully mature scholarly communication and library systems, both at the local and national levels, and by complex national and international systems of scientific publication and bibliographical services. But it is a period in which the effectiveness of the now long-established organizational arrangements for managing public knowledge as they have developed since the invention of printing and the emergence of great knowledge institutions that had begun to take shape in the 17th century – arrangements centrally involving, for example, universities, scientific associations and academies, the publishing industry, and libraries and museums – are being questioned. In Europe among their interrogators are Paul Otlet, H. G. Wells, Otto Neurath and others who are seeking to find ways of overcoming barriers to social as well as scientific and technical progress inherent in the knowledge apparatus as it was then constituted. For Otlet, Wells and others microfilm and indeed other technologies, such as Neurath's ISOTYPE visual language, offer the prospect of a revolutionary technological "fix" to the existing inefficiencies of the systems of scientific and scholarly communication.

The work that I have done so far only touches on some of these matters. In Information Processing and Management, “Some Schemes for Restructuring and Mobilizing Information in Documents: A Historical Perspective,” I examine the utopian information management ideas of John Dury and Samuel Hartlib (and their colleagues in mid-17th century London) and of Leibniz, as well as those of more recent figures such as William Learned and H. G. Wells. I have gone back to look closely at Bacon’s ideas about the nature of knowledge and how his ideas might be related to issues of scientific communication and knowledge organization (“Francis Bacon”). I have also mounted what I hope is a cogently argued negative critique of Wells’ idea of a World Brain. Much remains!


The underlying goal of these kinds if studies is to examine the ways in which all societies are, in some sense, information societies. To do so, we focus on periods in which for some articulate and influential persons the information infrastructure of the time seems to be breaking down and is prompting them both to criticize what exists and to speculate about what is needed. What comprises information infrastructure? How does it assume institutional forms that historically integrate people, technologies and various kinds of practices involving collecting, preserving, organizing and making information available for use? And how does this complex infrastructure underlie social stability and change, both as cause and effect? These questions are grand, perhaps ultimately irresolvable, but how fascinating they remain even if one is still merely nibbling around the edges!

For Further Reading: Publications Discussed in the Article

By Boyd Rayward

Francis Bacon's natural history and problems of the communication of scientific knowledge. In W. Boyd Rayward (Ed.), Aware and Responsible: Papers of the Nordic-International Colloquium on Social and Cultural Awareness and Responsibility in Library, Information and Documentation Studies, Oulu, Finland, Dec 13-14 2001 (pp. 115-139). Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004.

Hasta la Documentacios Electronica. P. A. Rived (Trans.) Madrid: Mundarnau, 2002. (Collection of papers of W. Boyd Rayward on Otlet and the international organization of bibliography and documentation translated into Spanish).

History of computer applications in libraries: Prolegomena. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 24 (April -June, 2002), 4-15

Knowledge organization and a new world polity: The rise and fall and rise of the ideas of Paul Otlet. Transnational Associations/Associations Transnationales, 2003 (Issues 1, 2), pp.4-15

Some schemes for restructuring and mobilizing information in documents: A historical perspective. Information Processing and Management, 30 (1994), 163-175

The development of library and information science: Disciplinary differentiation, competition and convergence. In F. Machlup and U. Mansfield (Eds.), The Study of Information: Interdisciplinary Messages (pp.343-363). New York: Wiley, 1983. (See also his replies to critiques of this article in “Librarianship and Information Research” below, which appeared in the same volume.)

Electronic information and the functional integration of libraries, museums and archives. In E. Higgs (Ed.), History and Electronic Artefacts (207-224). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

From docent to cyberdocent: Education and guidance in the virtual museum. With M. B. Twidale. Archives and Museum Informatics, 13 (1999), 23-53

H.G. Wells’s world brain: A critical re-assessment. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50. 557-573

Librarianship and information research: Together or apart. In F. Machlup and U. Mansfield (Eds.), The Study of Information: Interdisciplinary Messages (pp.399-405). New York: Wiley, 1983. (Reply to critiques of his “The Development of Library and Information Science” in the same volume).

Scientific and technological information systems in their many contexts: The imperatives, clarification, and inevitability of historical study. In W. B. Rayward and M.E. Bowden (Eds.), Proceedings of the Conference on the History and Heritage of Scientific and Technical Information Systems, Philadelphia, November 16-17, 2002 (pp. 1-14). Medford, NJ: Information Today for the American Society for Information Science and Technology and the Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2004.

 The History and Historiography of Information Science: Some Reflections, Information Processing and Management, 32 (1996), 1-17

The origins of information science and the work of the International Institute of Bibliography/ International Federation for Documentation and Information (FID). Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48 (1997), 289-300. Reprinted in T.B. Hahn and M. Buckland (Eds.) Historical Studies in Information Science. Medford, NJ: Information Today for the American Society for Information Science, 1998.

The Universe of Information: The Work of Paul Otlet for Documentation and International Organization. FID Publication 520. Moscow: Published for the International Federation for Documentation by the All-Union Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (VINITI), USSR Academy of Sciences, 1975.

Universum informastsii Zhizn' i deiatl' nost' Polia Otle. R.S. Giliarevesky (Trans.). Moscow: VINITI, 1976 .

El Universo de la Documentacion: la obra de Paul Otlet sobra documentacion y organizacion internacional. P. A. Rived (Trans.). 2nd. Ed. Madrid: Mundarnau, 1999.

Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and hypertext. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 45 (1994), 235-250..Reprinted in T.B. Hahn and M. Buckland (Eds.) Historical Studies in Information Science. Medford, NJ: Information Today for the American Society for Information Science, 1998.

When and why is a pioneer: History and heritage in library and information science. Library Trends, 5, 671-682

Edited and translated by Boyd Rayward

Otlet, Paul. International Organization and Dissemination of Knowledge: Selected Essays of Paul Otlet. W. B. Rayward (Ed. and trans.). Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1990.

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