1996 Annual Meeting Preview
Fashioning a World Brain
by Ivars Peterson
© 1996 by Ivars Peterson

"A new way of duplicating records, manuscripts, books and illustrations is being developed, and scientists predict that it is destined to play a large part in the scholarly research of the future," a news item declares.

The article goes on to say that this revolutionary means of storing and distributing information will have two important effects. It will make library materials more accessible by allowing librarians, in effect, to loan a book or document while, at the same time, keeping it on the shelf. It will also permit the publishing of voluminous, technical or highly illustrated manuscripts, theses and other materials that now languish in laboratories and offices because no journal has funds or space to publish them.

I couldn't help thinking about the current explosion of activity in electronic publishing, the Internet and the World Wide Web when I first read these words. But the words were actually written in 1937, and the article, published in Science News Letter (now Science News), heralded the arrival of microfilm into the scholarly domain.

Its author was Watson Davis, editor of Science News Letter and director of Science Service, which was then known as "the institution for the popularization of science." Some accounts credit Davis with coining the term "microfilm."

"Soon, it is predicted, this word will be as common as 'book' or 'journal' in library, educational and scientific circles," Davis announced.

The technology had originally been introduced in the 1920s for copying bank checks in clearinghouses by photographing them on 16-millimeter movie film. It didn't take long for this application to be extended to business records and legal documents.

Science Service, along with the Library of Congress, the Works Progress Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Library, the U.S. Bureau of the Census and other organizations, played a central role in sponsoring the development of this novel information technology for use in research and education.

In fact, Science Service became, for a number of years, the repository of articles, tables of data, illustrations and other material that couldn't be published by conventional means. These documents came from the editors of more than 25 major scientific journals, and Science Service staff assigned each item a number and set a price for which the organization would furnish a microfilm copy. The scientific journal would publish a short version of the paper together with an announcement of the availability of the microfilm.

Microfilm represented an attractive solution to the growing urgency of providing for more and easier publication of specialized scientific information, including "the details of cosmic ray observations, the cryptic derivations of mathematical formulae, the intricacies of chemical determinations, the delving of a scholar of language into a tongue long dead [and] the columns of statistics compiled to chart the course of population."

"In this way, important but specialized material can be made accessible without burdening libraries and individuals with material that they may never need," Davis wrote.

What were the issues back then? Technical concerns centered on the stability of cellulose acetate film for long-term preservation, increasing the level of miniaturization to pack even more information onto film, and the development of reliable copiers and viewers, including portable units for the traveling researcher.

"In the future, those engaged in scholarly research will think of a microfilm reading machine as they do of a typewriter," Davis predicted, "and studies, libraries and laboratories will be equipped with them as commonly as with typewriters."

The big project was to apply microfilm to the problem of compiling a massive index of all scientific literature. "Heretofore, scientists have not dared to contemplate such an undertaking because of the millions of cards that would need to be classified and filed, to say nothing of the cost of printing," Davis commented. "If an 'electric eye' were perfected to select from the rolls of microfilm the references a scientist might desire, then the building and use of such a great guide to the world's knowledge might be contemplated."

Articles in subsequent issues of Science News Letter promised additional benefits, explored innovative developments and raised new concerns. One was the establishment of national and international standards for uniformly preparing articles for technical and scientific periodicals and for classifying and indexing books and other documents.

Davis himself became president of the newly founded American Documentation Institute, which addressed some of these needs and took over the repository function that Science Service had held. He also led the U.S. delegation at the August 1937 World Congress of Universal Documentation, held in Paris.

Occurring just two years before the horror and devastation of the Second World War, the Congress was a stellar affair, radiating an optimistic spirit the belied the events to come. Watson Davis addressed the meeting, as did writer H.G. Wells. Wells described the contemplated documentation effort as the beginning of the creation of a "world brain."

"What you are making, we realize, is a sort of cerebrum for humanity, a cerebral cortex, which, when it is completely developed, will constitute a memory and also a perception of current reality for the entire human race," Wells told the Congress. "This is exciting the imagination of some of us very greatly."

"We begin most easily with the documentation of concrete facts," he went on. "But ideas are also facts, and I do not see how this new and great encyclopedia, this race brain whose foundations you are laying, can fail to develop into anything but a mighty structure for comparison, reconciliation and synthesis of common guiding ideas for the whole world."

These are mind-pricking words to ponder, nearly 60 years later, as I type this column on my word-processing computer. The World Wide Web is only a few keystrokes away. I can communicate nearly instantly with colleagues anywhere in the world. I have access to far more information than I can ever assimilate and use.

We have come far, but we also have a long way to go toward fulfilling Wells's vision.


Ivars Peterson is math/physics editor of Science News in Washington, DC. He can be reached via the Internet at ip@scisvc.org

Callout copy:
The Author and Science News

Ivars Peterson, math/physics editor of Science News, will address a plenary session of the ASIS 1996 Annual Meeting at 8:30 a.m., Tuesday, October 22, in Baltimore, Maryland. Science News was founded by Watson Davis, the founder of the American Documentation Institute, which became the American Society for Information Science in 1968.

A brief history of the American Documentation Institute is available at the society's web site: http://www.asis.org