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of the American Society for Information Scinece

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Volume 25, No. 2

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December / January 1999




The Noble Brow of History:
The History and Heritage of Science
Information Systems

by W. Boyd Rayward

It is a fact worthy of note that over the last few years a strong interest has emerged in the history of information science. Why is this so? Is it because the field has attained that state of maturity in which a desire to understand the processes and stages of the field organically develops? Is it merely the result of a number of hitherto isolated and fragmentary historical studies at last having achieved a critical mass that commands attention? Is it simply the achievement of a limited number of individuals believing passionately that, in this as in any other field, effective knowledge of the present requires a critical element of historical understanding? Could it be that their energy and commitment have helped create an agenda that cannot be ignored?

Whatever the other reasons, there is such a cast of characters in the field of information science, and they do indeed have an agenda. This was made abundantly clear by Michael Buckland in his opening remarks at the Conference on the History and Heritage of Science Information Systems, which was held in Pittsburgh, October 23-25, 1998, just prior to the ASIS Annual Meeting. He should know. He was at the time the president of ASIS, which co-sponsored the conference with the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF). He was also one of the key members of the conference organizing committee.

Buckland noted that within ASIS an important starting point for a concerted push to create interest in the field's history was a session on information science before 1945 that was organized at the Society's 1991 Annual Meeting by Irene Farkas-Conn. Other history sessions at ASIS meetings have followed -- in fact every year since then and mostly organized by Buckland himself. To focus and encourage institutional interest he, Bob Williams and others were instrumental in having the ASIS Special Interest Group/Foundations of Information Science transformed into SIG/History and Foundations of Information Science (SIG/HFIS).

Meanwhile, CHF, over a 10-year period, had been collaborating with Eugene (Gene) Garfield, a noted information scientist who was originally a chemist. Gene had for many years displayed a strong interest in the history of science, in general, and in the integrally related disciplines of chemistry and information science, in particular. In the period 1993-95, he and Arnold Thackray, CHF's president, began actively to explore means of stimulating historical interest in information science.

Then, accelerando and crescendo, came a series of important developments. In 1994 with a small grant from ASIS, Williams began a project to identify pioneering individuals and organizations in the field and to create a database of information about them, including especially, where this was known, the location of personal and corporate papers. This project, carried out sensitively but with steely tenacity, was completed in 1996. It is located at


In 1995 Buckland and Liu prepared a chapter for the Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST) on the history of information science. In 1996 Rayward edited a history issue of Information Processing & Management, and Williams was named the first Garfield Fellow in the history of information science at CHF. In 1997 Buckland and Hahn edited what became a double issue of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science (JASIS) on the subject. These three items have now been brought together with other material and updated in Historical Studies in Information Science, edited by Hahn and Buckland (ASIS, 1998). Also in 1998, to celebrate the American Chemical Society's Chemical Information Division's 50th anniversary, CHF issued the posters, Chronology of Chemical Information Science, 1778-1944, and 1945-1988, compiled by Williams and Mary Ellen Bowden, senior research historian at CHF.

And, sfortzato, in 1997, Williams began to plan what became the1998 Conference on the History and Heritage of Science Information Systems. Onto his capable shoulders fell the burden of bringing off this important scholarly and professional event.

The Organization

Williams had help, of course. A small advisory committee was created to assist him. CHF President Thackray played a leading role in this committee along with Michael Buckland. Gene Garfield brought to it his incomparable experience of the field's evolution. In addition to Mary Ellen Bowden, senior research historian at CHF, other committee members were Colin Burke, Toni Carbo, Irene Farkas-Conn, Trudi Bellardo Hahn and myself. June Brets, Marie Stewart and other CHF staff provided invaluable administrative help.

We decided that the Conference on the History and Heritage of Science Information Systems would have a double purpose. First, it was to be a major public occasion devoted to historical inquiry. But it would also be one that was demonstrably relevant not only to those involved with aspects of information science, but to others in the community of historians of science more generally. Second, because the field of study had emerged relatively recently and its origins were so strongly applied, we believed that the forum should take cognizance of the innovative systems developments of its pioneers. Many of these men and women were very much alive to tell their stories. Some had actively participated in Bob Williams' earlier Pioneer's project and the oral history interviews that were completed as part of his Garfield Fellowship.

To enable as broad an attendance as possible, a successful application was submitted to NSF for financial support. One of our aims was to help to defray the costs of international participants, some pioneers, and to encourage interested Ph.D. students to attend. We hoped to draw the latter from programs in the history of science and technology as well as information science.


Our first objective led us to invite four distinguished historians of science and technology to present papers on their research as it related to the conference's focus. Their papers reflected a number of important general themes in the history of information technology and systems. One was the complex role of government. Another was the transformative role of information technology in scientific practice, including scientific communication. Yet a third, the wide range of appropriate historiographical methodologies that is available for such studies.

Thomas P. Hughes from the University of Pennsylvania reported on the National Research Council's recent study on the history of the federal government's funding of computing since World War II, Funding a Revolution - Government Support of Computing Research (NRC Committee on Innovations in Computing and Communication: Lessons from History, to be published February 1999.)  He suggested that only a long-term narrative approach could reveal the nature of the complex interactions among government funding, industry and developments in information technology that had taken place in this period. He pointed out that while the government's support was primarily for the research and development needs of the military establishment, over the longer term this support had immense civilian repercussions. It can be shown to have been responsible for a range of breakthroughs, such as the development of digital computers, timesharing, networks, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, that were later taken over and commercialized in various ways and are now changing society.

But the government both created information systems to support research and development and restricted access to these systems and the information that was their freight. Robert Seidel, director of the Babbage Institute in Minneapolis, discussed the emergence after the War and during the Cold War of secret scientific communities built around the research and development programs sponsored by the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Agency. Drawing on a range of different kinds of sources, he showed how gradually, as these communities grew in size, they developed a complexity of communications processes and systems reminiscent of the open world of science but closed by the needs of national security.

Information systems and technology impact science substantively at the same time as they help to transform its communications infrastructure. His research into the impact of information technology on the communications aspects of the cold fusion debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s has led Bruce Lewenstein from Cornell University to conclude that we need new models of scientific communication. These will take into account "the permeable boundaries between primary and secondary information, between formal publication, preprints, electronic computer networks, fax machines, mass media presentations and other forums for scientific discussions."

Timothy Lenoir from Stanford on the other hand has explored the ways in which the process of "informatization" that the biomedical sciences have been undergoing since the 1960s and 1970s has transformed scientific practice. He examined the developmental impact dating from this early period of the introduction into chemistry of computer simulation and modeling, artificial intelligence techniques and computer graphics and computer-generated visualization. His view is that these new forms of scientific instrumentation, the changing practice of science and the development of theory have become so intricately interdependent that we now need to think of theory-building in terms of "knowledge engineering."

And Variations

The papers that were presented in two parallel sessions in the main body of the conference were from a wide variety of authors -- pioneers, academics and professionals. They also reflected national and international approaches.

The Early Systems:  A number of pioneers discussed the early systems with which they were familiar.  Madeline Henderson, who was principal early compiler of the series of reports, Nonconventional Information Systems in Current Use, issued from 1957-66 by NSF's Office of Science information, selected a number of especially innovative systems for discussion. Jim Cretsos, former president of ASIS, discussed the systems based on superimposed coding he had worked with. Herbert Ohlman surveyed the history of automatic indexing, focusing on the permuterm system he developed in the 1950s.

Chemical Information: Much innovative early systems development was stimulated by the information needs of chemists and the problems created by their literature. Echoing a theme dealt with in a quite different way earlier by Tim Lenoir, several conference papers were devoted to aspects of chemical information services. Helen Schofield, from the University of Manchester Institute on Science and Technology, examined the historical development of the secondary literature in chemistry focusing on Beilstein's Handbook for Organic Chemistry, Gmelin's Handbook for Inorganic Chemistry and Chemical Abstracts. Kenneth Ostrum from Chemical Abstracts Service discussed the evolution of that organization over its 90 years of life. A not unrelated account by Florence H. Kvalnes concentrated on the sequence of information system migrations that occurred as new technology became available in the DuPont Company beginning in the 1960s. She pointed out that work at DuPont on the storage and retrieval of information by chemical structure served as a foundation for the development of Chemical Abstracts registry file.

Citation Indexing:  Another major "bibliographic" invention was the citation index developed by Gene Garfield and introduced commercially in the early 1960s through what eventually became the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). A descriptive paper by a member of the ISI staff, Jacqueline Trolley, formed a lead-in to a powerful study of the origins of Science Citation Index by Paul Wouters from the University of Amsterdam. Drawing on Garfield's personal papers, he explored Garfield's relationships in this early period with a number of scientists, especially Joshua Lederberg, the geneticist. Wouters situated the origins of the new instrument of science and the impulse for its promotion and development in a challenging conceptual framework. This involved not only a set of assumptions about the nature of science but a conviction that a total reorganization of the documentary infrastructure of science was needed. Citation indexing, it was believed, would make this possible. In the event emergent uses and commercial forces were to dissipate these aspirations.

International Perspectives: Several papers concentrated on historical developments outside of the U.S. The establishment and growth of VINITI (the All-Russian Institute for Scientific and Technical Information) in Russia were outlined by Ruggero Giliarevsky, a professor in VINITI. Pamela Spence Richards from Rutgers University provided a special perspective on these developments in a study of what she called "the Soviet overseas information empire." From Japan, Takashi Satoh, a professor in the University of Library and Information Science, introduced the appealing figure of the nobleman, Shigenori Baba. Baba's work as a government official and an academic was central to the development both of libraries and of library and information science in Japan before and after World War II.

Biographical Perspectives: In addition to Shigenori Baba, the conference was introduced to another major international figure whose work is little known in the United States, the German Nobel laureate in chemistry, Wilhelm Ostwald. In his paper on Ostwald's information work before World War I, Thomas Hapke from Hamburg Technical University, discussed the creation and influence the Bridge, a movement to create new procedures and standards for coordinating the production and dissemination of scientific and technical information.

Ralph Shaw, director of the Library of the US Department of Agriculture, was a major figure in the development of both documentation and librarianship in the United States. In her paper on Shaw's work especially with the Rapid Selector, Jana Varlejs from Rutgers University suggested that the controversial views Shaw formed out of this experience about the relationship of librarians and documentalists stimulated debate for several decades.

Professional and Technical Issues: The emergence of this conflict between librarians and documentalists was the subject of the paper by Mark Bowles from Case Western Reserve University, who explored it in the context of the work of Allen Kent in the Center for Documentation and Communication research at what was then Western Reserve University. A paper by Susan Cady from Lehigh University surveyed the use of microfilm for information purposes beginning in the late 1920s. It was the much-hyped revolutionary technology before the development of the computer by means of which all information storage and retrieval problems were to be solved. An interesting duo of papers looked at issues concerning scientific nomenclatures. Geof Bowker from the University of Illinois in an elegant scholarly account, examined the history of attempts to create a standardized nomenclature for botany. Bernadette Callery from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh discussed historical record-keeping systems in museums and the current problems that the different naming schemes adopted in the past now present for the design of modern systems to provide cooperative access to museum collections.

Bernd Frohman from the University of Western Ontario, in a provocative analysis drawing on current approaches within science studies to the practice of science, challenged the very basis on which information systems for science have been built. It is now an accepted paradox, he observed, that the scientific paper does not provide the most important or useful information for the practicing scientist. We should, therefore, he suggested, not be concerned with the informative content of the scientific paper at all; we should simply study the role it plays in scientific labor as a "material discursive resource."

Bob Hayes from UCLA summed up the conference in a magisterial survey of the developments that have influenced the evolution of the field in the period since WWII.

Recognizing Pioneers: The Social Dimension

At the first conference dinner after the introductory speeches, Toni Carbo (andante cantabile) with great charm and tact, microphone in hand, and wearing lightly her great historical knowledge of the field, conducted a ceremony of recognition and nostalgia. With overhead lights dim, followed by a spotlight, she sought out each of the pioneers strategically placed at tables throughout the room and invited him or her to offer the gathering a brief word of reminiscence. Whatever rivalries and passions different systems and philosophies may have engendered in the past, what was evoked on this celebratory evening was an extraordinary sense of camaraderie arising from what was clearly regarded as a fascinating shared adventure.

At the final dinner, Gene Garfield in a fine personal essay, referring to a dismayingly thick file of transparencies that flashed by (allegretto), surveyed the people who had played an important role in the development of the field. Some were in the room, some gone. Some, like Paul Otlet from Belgium, are now very remote figures indeed. Finally, Bob Williams, with help from Mary Ellen Bowden, Toni Carbo and the Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences, had created what he called the "History of Information Science Theater." This consisted of a "series of videos and slides, collected from various sources, that illustrated people, events and information technology over the past 75 years." Set up in a nearby room this was available for inspection throughout the conference. It will continue to be developed and made available at future ASIS meetings.

At lunches, at coffee breaks, from the floor at the formal papers, the pioneers and other participants raised with each other questions, made comments, started threads of discussion and argument, established contacts for future use - a social dimension that characterizes all successful conferences.

The Future

(Coda: Rallentando) We hope that this is just a first conference of its kind. We hope it will stimulate more interest in historical work. Until the Proceedings are published in September 1999, the abstracts are available at


The organizing committee will consider what next steps are possible. There are many possible tacks historical investigation might take, much that needs to be reassessed historically, much haste that is needed to capture what remains in the memories of those growing older, much to be understood about the present that only the past can provide. We have barely touched the surface but, it has revealed the richness that lies beneath waiting to be explored.

W. Boyd Rayward is visiting professor at the University of Illinois. He can be reached by e-mail at


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@ 1999, American Society for Information Science
Last Update: February 21, 1999