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  • The Early Information Society: Information Management in Britain before the Computer
  • Genevieve Williams
The Early Information Society: Information Management in Britain before the Computer. By Alistair Black, Dave Muddiman, and Helen Plant. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007. 288 pp. $114.95. £60.00. ISBN 978-0-7546-4279-4.

The information society, defined as a society where commerce in information is a significant activity, is generally supposed to have begun concurrently to the computer age. Certainly, the term "information society" as well as the concepts it embodies and the widespread use of the word "computer" began to enter common parlance in the 1970s. Such is the basis for Black, Muddiman, and Plant's thesis, upon which they build the argument that the information society as both [End Page 355] a concept and a reality actually began substantially earlier—at least in Britain, the area under study, and the United States. The rise of the computer and its subsequent rapid integration into every aspect of modern life may then be interpreted as a response to a need: the need for a technological solution to the exponential rise in volume of information in the twentieth century, particularly scientific and technical information.

The Early Information Society, then, posits an origin of the information society in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth, and demonstrates from a variety of perspectives the developing information infrastructure that preceded the desktop computer, the computer network, and the Internet. In support of its argument, it acknowledges the early prescient contributions to the notion of the information society, particularly the observations of Fritz Machlup that led to his 1962 book The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States and Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think" from the July 1945 issue of Atlantic Monthly and claims that while these are also referred to by those who cite the origin of the information society around 1970, they are in fact products of a much earlier commodification of information.

Instead of treating this history chronologically, Black, Muddiman, and Plant choose a faceted approach: in turn, they consider the environment in which the information society grew and developed (namely, infrastructure, networks, and the state), approaches to information management, and the information workforce during this period. Despite the fairly narrow focus of their study (a period of, at the outside, sixty years, and dealing largely with those organizations, collections, and services that fall under the designation "special" libraries or knowledge organizations), the authors uncover a wealth of previously largely invisible history that still influences libraries and information organizations. This includes the rapid proliferation of scientific and technical information, particularly after World War II; the development of professional library and information associations, especially the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux (ASLIB); knowledge management in organizations of various kinds, notably the company library; and developments in education for the information professions. A chapter on the gendered nature of information work in Britain illustrates that the male domination of managerial positions in special libraries and knowledge organizations is nothing new and in fact can be said to have its origins in the period under discussion. Plant also shows how women's entries into lower-ranking special library positions were often their only access to scientific and research organizations that otherwise remained closed to them, often despite substantial academic preparation.

Many of the themes revealed in this history will resonate with information professionals of the present day: the problem of managing burgeoning research literature; persistent issues of access, publication, and control; the recognized need for organization and coordination across an emerging professional discipline; separation and rapprochement between librarianship and information science; information overload and office management; and the emergence of the study of information as a distinct area of scholarship. Of course, it behooves the authors to draw these similarities between information-related concerns of the early twentieth century and those of the early twenty-first, since this supports their argument that these concerns are not new, and neither is the informational context from which [End Page 356] they arise. However, their case is a convincing one, not only detailing a previously little-known area of the history of library and information...


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