Information – A Historical Introduction. Book review

How do you review a book that runs to almost 900 pages? Answers on a pack of postcards please! Two books sparked my interest in the history of information. The first was A History of Online Information Services 1963-1976 by Bourne and Hahn which provides a vast amount of detail on the early development of IR applications as well as the remote access services that really took off in the late 1960s. The second was Too Much to Know by Ann Blair, in which the author focused on developments in the 16th and 17th Centuries, when ‘information overload’ emerged as a significant challenge for readers, librarians and archivists. I should also highlight Donna Harman’s Information Retrieval – The Early Years and Stephen Robertson’s book on the pre-history of computer-based IR systems. There is also James Gleick’s book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood which focuses mainly on the work of Claude Shannon. The list of resources must also include Jeremy Norman’s History of Information web site

Ann Blair is one of the editors of Information – A Historical Companion, published in 2021 by Princeton University Press. Her colleagues are Paul Duguid, Anja-Silvia Goeing and Anthony Grafton. The book is divided into two Parts. Part 1, with 280 pages in 13 chapters, provides a chronological history of the development of information dissemination and management from 1450 onwards, though there are also elements of earlier developments, especially in China and the Islamic world. Each of these chapters is written by an authority of the period, but to a consistent style, which is no mean feat on the part of the editors and the production team. Chapter 13 covers the topic of search, which disappointingly focuses mainly on Google. Looking at the index (itself running to 40 pages) there are no entries for Cleverdon, Cranfield, Salton or Spärk Jones. Each chapter has a good bibliography though the entries are listed in a text format and not in a standard citation format. This saves space but makes it very difficult to identify and assess the range of references

Part 2 consists of 101 shorter essays on a very wide range of topics, with each essay being around 5 pages long with again some citations for further reading. The authors come from a range of academic institutions from around the world, but I do feel (without any real evidence) that there is a USA perspective to the essays. The Part 1 chapters are much wider in geographic scope.

I’ve been randomly reading chapters and topic essays over the last few months and found that the book is almost a Rosetta Stone in opening up the history of information. To adopt the title of Ann Blair’s book, there is almost too much to know. The content is amazing but the usability of the book is somewhat overwhelmed by its size. In particular there is no presentation of the pagination of the Part 2 essays. Although they are listed in alphabetical order, you end up having to begin at some random point between p284 and p831 and then move backwards or forwards to the specific essay you wish to read. The index is extensive and well-constructed but it also reveals (as I have mentioned above) topics and people who have been overlooked. I’ve already commented on some of the gaps in the search chapter and the bibliography to this chapter does not include the book by Bourne and Hahn or Google’s PageRank and Beyond by Langville and Meyer, also published by Princeton Press!

However, in a book of this size it is easy for a reviewer to highlight what they see as potential deficiencies. I need to take a broader perspective and say that at just £50 this book is amazing value and provides what may well turn out to be the definitive large-scale book on the historical development of ‘information’ however you define it. Every Information School should be making its students aware of the existence of the book and providing access to it in departmental libraries. For any researcher working on topics included in the book it will provide essential context in terms of pre-history and post-history. My copy of the book is on the book case just to the side of my desk, next to the Bourne and Hahn book and Inside the IMF by Richard Harper. These three books are my ‘coffee club’ books, which I open at random when taking a coffee break in order to learn more about the fascinating history of information. If you have any professional interest in information then I can think of no better use of £50.

Note – this review also appears in the Spring issue of the BCS IRSG newsletter Informer

Martin White