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portal: Libraries and the Academy 2.3 (2002) 490-491

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Book Review

A History of Information Storage and Retrieval

A History of Information Storage and Retrieval, Foster Stockwell. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2001. 200 p. $39.95 (ISBN 0-7864-0840-5)

A book should not be judged by its cover; this book should not be judged by its title. A History of Information Storage and Retrieval has precious little to do with what academic librarians think of as "information storage and retrieval." Instead, it surveys how humans have preserved their knowledge, focusing mainly on the history of encyclopedias. Foster Stockwell is a publishing consultant for Chinese publishers and authors, as well as the author of Encyclopedia of American Communes, 1663-1963 (McFarland, 1998). Writing in an anecdotal, personal tone, Stockwell consistently uses phrases like "as everyone knows," in addition to referring to the author and readers in the first person. The terms "information" and "knowledge" are used interchangeably, without providing an adequate working definition of either. Couple this tendency with a lack of documentation within the text-there are no footnotes, no dates for people being discussed, and very few concrete examples to illustrate points being made-and it is rather difficult to determine the intended audience for this book. It is not really suited to academic libraries and perhaps not even to school libraries, given the numerous problems within the text.

While the discussion of early encyclopedias is entertaining and quite readable, and astutely includes material from Eastern as well as Western cultures, there are problems within. Urban legends and factual errors, along with sweeping generalizations, are sprinkled throughout the text. While giving the Chinese due credit for the invention of movable type, the importance of the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg is disposed of quickly. Stockwell neglects to note that the Canterbury Tales are in verse, not prose (p. 153). A discussion of subscription books (pp. 132-133) only mentions this aspect of the book trade as existing in the early part of the 20th century, with encyclopedia sales; the publication and sale of subscription books (including encyclopedias) dates to at least the 18th century. Chapter Seven purports to discuss the history of the Bible as a source of information; it quickly becomes a rant against those who take the text literally as "the word of God," (p. 57) pointing out flaws and inherent contradictions to prove a point. Whether one agrees or not with this debunking of holy books as sources of information about the world, the tone and style of this discussion do not belong in a proper history. The urban legend of the sinking library (the old chestnut about the architects not figuring in the weight of the books in their design), this time ascribed to Indiana University, is also featured (p. 144).

As he moves on to discuss modern times and library practices, Stockwell provides technological possibilities as given facts: "subject headings now have become descriptions. The librarian is now an information specialist, and the library is now an information center" (p. 148). While this may be cutting-edge theory in library schools across the country, it is not necessarily the experience of the average working librarian. Discussions of public access catalog functions and services are based on [End Page 490] experiences with one particular library management system at one particular library, not taking into account very different services provided by different companies, and different choices, such as index building, made by different libraries. Stockwell espouses the idea that everything of use will be (or already is) available digitally, specifically on CD-ROMs, which he claims are indestructible, neglecting problems of time, funding, bandwidth, and data migration. The discussion of hypertext media includes an appendix describing different search engines— is a glaring omission—without spending much time considering problems such as false hits, and techniques such as controlled vocabulary in the discussion that precedes it, although it does mention Boolean search logic.

A History of Information Storage and Retrieval, unfortunately, is not the book...


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