Lectures & Conferences

The Science of Information, 1870-1945: The Universalization of Knowledge in a Utopian Age

February 23-25, 2017


(in alphabetical order)

Return to the conference homepage


Alistair Black, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"All information flows toward it, or returns to it in a form worked up into shape": The Intelligence Branch and Libraries of the British War Office, 1873-1914

Intelligence has always been an aspect of organized warfare. It was not until the 1873, however, that the British Army effectively recognised this formally by establishing a dedicated division, under the auspices of the War Office, named the "Intelligence Branch," whose work was to be supported by collections of printed materials in libraries spread across a number of locations. Based on documents held in the National Archives (UK), this paper explores the ways in which the work of the War Office Intelligence Branch developed before the First World War in response to imperial and foreign-military challenges. Specifically, attention is paid to the type of information management methods that were employed. Significantly, these methods pre-dated those that emerged around the turn of the century in the first large multinational corporations, in counter-intelligence agencies like MI5 (1908) and in the Board of Trade, which inaugurated a Commercial Intelligence Branch in 1899. They also pre-dated, though subsequently paralleled, the late-nineteenth century emergence of a science of management, which included an identifiable information dimension.


Rachel Sagner Buurma, Swarthmore College

Henry Wheatley's General Index: Knowledge Organization, Fictional Representation, and Information Utopianism in the 1870s

Henry Wheatley's idea for a General Index can seem like an early prototype of grander, better-known universal knowledge projects like those of Otlet and La Fontaine. It can also read as a local, British precursor of the larger, more international, and better-organized projects to come. Yet Wheatley's focus on the proposed General Index's partiality, extensibility, and engagement with practices of personal knowledge collection and organization sets it apart from later, more universalizing and totalizing knowledge organization projects. Wheatley's design for the General Index imagined it knitting together the fragmented notes of all types of researchers; he planned for it to connect individual and idiosyncratic knowledge creation practices with the practices and standards of emerging institutions of knowledge organization. After describing Wheatley's vision of the General Index in the context of mid-Victorian ideas about indexing, knowledge organization, and bibliographic control, I will briefly consider how this extensible, partial, index-based knowledge organization system was implemented by best-selling (and now nearly forgotten) Victorian novelist Charles Reade. Examining Reade's engagement with existing theories and practices of knowledge organization like those Wheatley embodied in the idea of the General Index, I will reveal the significant social and cultural presence of this alternate information utopianism by tracking it through theories of fictional representation as well as everyday practices of list-making. What might past models of knowledge organization like the General Index - models that center individual agents and do not necessarily align information utopianism with universalism and totality - offer our thinking about contemporary information utopianisms?


Alex Csiszar, Harvard University

Legislating an International Scientific Polity ca. 1900: Fantasies of Access and Empire

For the many scientists, librarians, and statesmen obsessing over the international organization of scientific literature around 1900, problems of knowledge were quite obviously coterminous with problems of political order. This paper will focus on the political stakes in the fight over organizing international science that pitted allies of the Royal Society of London's plan for an intergovernmental organization (The International Catalogue of Scientific Literature) against a Belgian plan to create a global federation of specialist organizations coordinated in Brussels (the Institut International de Bibliographie). As the management of science came into focus as a problem, and one that might be solved through the management of paper documents, many looked to other domains more practiced in the management of documents, including criminology, business, and statecraft. Indeed, while the Brussels group (and their many French allies) was more likely to wear its political activism on its sleeve, both groups were animated by particular visions of imperial control and of global social coordination. These visions translated not only to distinct plans for building an information infrastructure for science (variously defined), but also to distinct fantasies of access (who, how, and what) to knowledge.


Teresa Davis, Princeton University

Universalism at the Margins: Codifying International Law in South America, 1889-1930

Between 1888 and 1928 the American continent saw widespread mobilization amongst North and South American jurists to codify private international law, that is, the set of rules and conventions governing the international relationships between private persons--whether individuals or corporations--and between these persons and the state. Coming as it did at a moment of increasing expansion of US trade and investment in Latin America, this was perhaps the world's first conversation between "north" and "south" over the rules governing the international economy. As such, the intellectual debates over private international law that took place across the Americas in this period raise key questions about the relationship between international mobility, sovereignty and economic development. At the center of the debate was the encounter between a utopian, "scientific" vision of a universal code, promoted by jurists affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on the one hand, and, on the other, projects which sought to preserve a wide margin of sovereign power, even as they strove to promote investment and trade through the gradual establishment of clear international rules.


Robert Fox, University of Oxford

Universal Knowledge as Utopia and Myth

The Baconian aphorism that knowledge is power has been amply vindicated since the seventeenth century, as political, economic, and cultural leaders have sought to control access to information, typically in opposition to advocates of openness. In the period treated in this conference, those who believed that knowledge should be open to all faced the challenge of an unprecedented acceleration in the pace of publication, followed by a distinct "national turn" after the Great War as nations appropriated science in pursuit of their various interests. Contrary voices, in the International Committee on International Co-operation and H. G. Wells's idea of a universally accessible "World Brain", were frail. But after the second world war they found new expression in UNESCO. The history of universalist sentiment in science and scholarship reflects both the travails and the resilience of a dream that has endured against the odds. In our own age of the Internet and the World Wide Web, might the dream now have another hope of realization?


Michael Gordin, Princeton University

Speaking Scientific Internationalism

The years between 1870 and 1945 were a watershed for the universalization of knowledge along several axes: the establishment of international scientific organizations, the rapid expansion of library and information management, and the striking cross-cutting among scientific disciplines (the unification of biology under genetics and natural selection, the grouping of the physical sciences under quantum theory, and more). A diverse group of European and North American scientists, however, perceived this same era as one of an incipient fragmentation caused by this very unification. They argued that as increasing numbers of nations and peoples, speaking a diversity of languages, were drawn into a scientific community that had been principally organized around the triad of English, French, and German, both the information sciences and the natural sciences faced a formidable, perhaps fatal, challenge. This presentation focuses on a set of solutions proposed by an array of natural scientists to adapt one technique of information management -- the constructed reference scheme (e.g., the Dewey Decimal System) -- into constructed "international languages" that would enable scientific communication during this oncoming Neo-Babel. Such constructed languages (Esperanto, Ido, Novial, Gloro, Interglossa, Latino sine Flexione, etc.) represent an often-neglected bridge across the various sciences of this internationalizing moment.


Evan Hepler-Smith, Harvard University

Chemical Nomenclature, International Chemistry, and the Particulars of Universalism, 1910-1930

In the field of organic chemistry, around the turn of the twentieth century, universalism in disciplinary politics and information management went hand-in-hand. Across Europe and America, tens of thousands of new synthetic compounds were transforming chemistry and commerce, and reform-minded chemists saw the development of international rules of nomenclature as the key to putting both chemicals and chemists in order.

The standardization of nomenclature and terminology is often taken for granted as typical subject matter for international cooperation. But what were the affinities that bound nomenclature reform and international organizations together in the first place? Members of the upper echelons of European academic chemistry, dissatisfied with the fragmented, contentious character of many international chemical meetings, made nomenclature the centerpiece of a different sort of organization. Crucially, such chemists saw nomenclature as something that mattered to everyone in their field, but did not matter too much to anyone. In the decades preceding World War I, chemical naming became the central problem around which a transnational chemical elite built institutions for intimate and wide-ranging intellectual exchange. Nomenclature reform played a different role within the international chemical organizations of the 1920s. Attending carefully to the official and unofficial work of the members of the nomenclature commission of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, I demonstrate that international cooperation was not a default state to which science reverted when political tensions ebbed, nor a fragile compromise shattered once and for all by war. For some, chemical naming was a means for establishing the legitimacy of an institution riven by political divisions, while for others, it was a means of breaking down these divisions.


Robert Kargon, Johns Hopkins University

The Geography of Knowledge: William Pepper, Jr. and the Advancement of Learning in Philadelphia 1870-1900

William Pepper, Jr. MD was the provost of the University of Pennsylvania and brought it and its medical school into the scientific age. Inspired by the successes of South Kensington's "Albertopolis" and by his role at the 1876 Philadelphia World's Fair, Pepper planned to create a knowledge city in Philadelphia, including advanced research and teaching institutions, laboratories, libraries, and museums.


Peter Lor, University of Pretoria

In the Background: The Development of International Librarianship during the Period 1870 - 1945

A great deal has been written and much more will no doubt be written, on the rise of documentation during the Belle époque and on the close association of key figures such as Otlet and La Fontaine with universalism and utopianism. Their heroic and ultimately unsuccessful project to create a universal database of scientific literature, and similar initiatives by the Royal Society and others, have overshadowed the international activities of librarians during the same period, which also saw the beginnings of international librarianship as a field of activity. Library activities across borders have a long history, but the word "international" was only invented by Jeremy Bentham in 1789, well more than a century after the creation of the Westphalian system. The word "internationalism" followed in 1843. International library activities in the form of international schemes for the exchange of publications started during the 19th Century and from mid-century gained impetus through national and international meetings of librarians held in conjunction with universal exhibitions. The second half of the 19th Century saw the advent of international conferences of librarians, bibliographers and bibliophiles. The first Anglo-American cataloguing code of 1908 was a product of formal library cooperation between two national library associations. The inter-war period 1918-1939 saw a significant growth in international librarianship. The series of international library and bibliographic conferences culminated in the founding of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) in 1927/9. It was also a period of growing US influence in Europe, Latin America and Africa through various processes and carried out by various agents. These included visitors to US libraries who went back to their countries to spread American library ideas, the American Library Association, involved in post-war reconstruction of library services, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the US State Department. The intention of this paper is to paint a broad canvas of the development of international library activity as a backdrop to developments in documentation. I will also pose questions about the relationship between the two fields. What links were there? What were the differences between the protagonists in terms of their professional backgrounds and institutional settings? How did their concerns and emphasis differ, e.g. in terms of bibliographic control? Was this the period of bifurcation, in which documentation, the precursor of information science, drifted away from librarianship?


Kathy Peiss, University of Pennsylvania

Information as Warfare: The American Transformation of the Internationalist Vision in WWII

Americans participated in the internationalist information movement of the interwar years, albeit with their own quirks and obsessions, especially a strange faith in microfilm. The descent into the Second World War exposed the weaknesses of the internationalist vision and resistances to universalization: the international book trade ended, scholarly exchange broke down, and nations concealed information to make war. In the United States, the first civilian intelligence agency, the Coordinator of Information--soon renamed the Office of Strategic Services--gathered librarians, archivists, and scholars to establish storage and retrieval systems for classified information. Strikingly, these were not primarily leading documentalists or scientists, but rather experts in the social sciences and humanities; their prior experience lay in Ivy League universities, research libraries, and New Deal cultural programs. Out of the wartime experience, a specifically American (and nationalist) version of internationalism and information emerged.


Lynn Ransom, University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Ernest Cushing Richardson: An American Librarian in an Internationalist Age

In 1897 at the 2nd International Library Conference held in London, the American librarian Ernest Cushing Richardson claimed "the evolution of mankind was ... an evolution in mind or knowledge. Since this evolution was characterized not by individual action but by coordinated action among many as represented in books, collections of books (i.e. libraries) were the instrument of cooperative knowledge and therefore the primary factor in human evolution." This sentiment captures in a nutshell how Richardson, one of the foundational leaders of modern librarianship, understood the transformative power of libraries in propelling mankind toward the highest standards of human development and social order by making the human knowledge accessible to every citizen of the world. His beliefs, largely shaped by such figures of the internationalist movement as Paul Otlet and Henry La Fontaine, made him a natural leader in the efforts to internationalize the practices of library and information science. His great success, the realization of the National Union Catalog in the 1920-30s, was a direct product of those efforts. Despite his successes, however, few today have heard of Richardson. Not long after the successful completion of the National Union Catalog project, Richardson and his ideas for universal access to the world's knowledge fell out of favor, and he was more or less forgotten by the profession he served so passionately for much of his life until his death in 1939.

This paper will consider the arc of Richardson's career as it paralleled the rise and demise of internationalist utopian ideals that were crushed in the years leading up to the second World War. It will look specifically at one of Richardson's greatest failures, a project to catalog the world's premodern manuscript books, and contextualize it in the context of internationalist thought and practice in order to shed light on what happened to an idealism shared by many in Richardson's time that arguably shaped librarianship as we know it today.


W. Boyd Rayward

Paul Otlet and the Organization of Knowledge

For fifty years Paul Otlet devoted himself to the study of how the social and epistemic benefits of the knowledge that was buried within what he called "documents" could be identified, extracted and potentiated for world-wide use. His approach was two pronged. First was technical: the creation, rationalisation and international promotion of new techniques for the processing of information. Second was organisational: the deployment of national and international associations and societies which would assume information-related tasks to support the emergence of a new information based global polity. Despite the sudden and shocking disruption of World War I, this new era seemed for a moment to be the inevitable outcome of the pre-war international arbitration and peace movements that culminated in the emergence of the post-War League of Nations and its associated agencies.

Like so many, Otlet was soon disillusioned in the League of Nations. During the 1920s and 1930s, he devoted himself to promoting the idea a World City. The Cité Mondiale was to be both a symbolical representation of his vision of a new international polity but also an architectural representation of a planned urban environment for housing the organisations, agencies, services and collections that would be needed for instantiating this vision. At the centre of the Cité Mondiale would rise what we now might call, anachronistically, a global data centre and its related services of information management and dissemination, the Mundaneum.

The paper concludes with an analysis of the resonances today of these Otletian projects.


Geert Somsen, Maastricht University

Unscathed Universalism. Scientific Internationalism through the Krieg der Gelehrten

The history of scientific internationalism through World War I, even though it has been studied many times, presents a startling dilemma. On the one hand, it has often been claimed that after August 1914, scientists of the belligerent nations quickly surrendered their belief in internationalist values to an all-out embrace of nationalism. This chauvinism exploded in the manifestoes of the Krieg der Gelehrten, and persisted into the creation of new (and nationally exclusive) international organizations after 1919. On the other hand, it seems that the internationalist rhetoric celebrating the universal and fraternizing nature of science re-emerged, phoenix-style, in the early 1920s, e.g. the work of George Sarton and in the establishment of the League of Nations' Commission Internationale de Coopération Intellectuelle. It was as if the war had never happened and as if the scientists' guerre des manifestes had not taken place. How can we explain the apparent lack of impact of wartime chauvinism? And how do we account for the co-existence of national exclusion and internationalist pontification after 1919? In this paper, I will try to answer these questions by revisiting our understanding of internationalism and postwar disillusionment.


Eva Hemmungs Wirtén, University of Linköping

A Dangerous Utopia: the Curious Case of Scientific Property

When the League of Nation's Commission Internationale de Coopération Intellectuelle (CICI) had its first meeting in Geneva in 1922, the members of the group quickly identified three topics of special importance. Interuniversity relations, bibliography, and intellectual property were considered so crucial to the group's mandate -- securing future peace by international collaboration -- that they warranted the setting up of separate sub-committees. In her talk, Eva Hemmungs Wirtén will take the CICI's controversial report on scientific property, written by the Italian Senator Ruffini in 1923, as her starting point for a discussion on the role of intellectual property in the context of the CICI and beyond. Looking ahead, she will especially consider how the sciences of information and utopian internationalist movements may provide a creative framing for a new kind of intellectual property history: the bibliographical history of patents.


Nader Vossoughian, New York Institute of Technology

Internationalism under National Socialism: Architects' Data and the Standardization of Knowledge (1933-1945)

The intimate ties between internationalist and pacifist movements in modern European history is fairly well-established. Lesser known, however, is the fact that fascist and imperialist governments have often affiliated themselves with internationalist and globalizing causes as well. Hendrik Christian Andersen appealed to Mussolini in an effort to realize the building of his World Center of Communication. Ernst Neufert appealed to Albert Speer and to Adolf Hitler in order to realize his dream of developing a universal language of design. He joined Speer's architectural office in 1938, he became an advisor to the Organisation Todt in 1942, and he headed DIN's (the German Institute for Standardization's) Construction Standards Committee between 1944 and 1945. Arguably, Neufert is best remembered today for authoring Architects' Data (Bauentwurfslehre). After eighty years, it is still the most influential standards handbook in the world. In this presentation, I document the genesis and evolution of this important publication. I concentrate on the graphic design and conceptual aims of the first edition. (I use it to explore the links between imperialism, modernism, and internationalism.) I historicize its 1943 and 1944 editions. (I show that these help flesh out Neufert's utopian aims and aspirations.) I narrate Neufert's stewardship of DIN's Construction Standards Committee. (This is in order to underline the links between internationalism, imperialism, and standardization.) I discuss the important role that standards continue to play in the organization of knowledge today. (I argue that we still need to historicize what some are calling the "Internet of things.")


Steven Witt, Center for Global Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Creating the International Mind: Promoting Peace and the Global Society through Books, Dialogue, and Cultural exchange 1917-1938

In 1918, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) worked to disseminate legal, cultural, and historical knowledge throughout the world. These efforts aimed to put an end to war by encouraging international understanding and developing cosmopolitan perspectives that emphasized transnational connections and de-emphasized nationalism. This global educational program was part of a well-funded and highly organized operation aimed to universalize global perspectives through an internationalism that would yield peace through cultural understanding and new forms of global governance. This paper will examine the role of the CEIP in developing transnational networks through libraries, publishers, and universities, anticipating the rise in the power of information networks and civil society groups to effect change on a global level.