Black, Alistair, Muddiman, Dave and Plant, Helen. The early information society: information management in Britain before the computer. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. xiv, 288 p. ISBN 978-0-7546-4279-4. £60.00
The idea to investigate the historical roots of information management and the information society is not entirely new. Library history is a long standing area of investigation. Within it some authors have investigated the development of special libraries and bibliography, information support to research and scientific communication. However, the history of information management and information work in organizational settings has attracted more attention only during the last decade due to the attempts of several outstanding researchers, such as Boyd Rayword and Alistair Black.
This text is the result of several authors' work, which reflects several aspects of the development of information activities in working organizations in Britain. The book focuses mainly on the first part of the 20th century (up to the 1960s) with some earlier glimpses into the 19th century. The main driving idea of the whole text is a passionate wish of the authors to prove that the humanity has lived in an information society long before the World War II and technological changes that speeded up information processing and transfer processes. They manage to prove it by surveying information circulation in industry, science and the state at large, investigating information practices and concepts prevailing in organizations of the period and looking into the development of information professions: education, rise of the association, and general changes.
For my teaching, the chapters on learning organization and company libraries contain the most interesting material. They are very helpful by providing examples and cases that might open up the minds of young students of the Google age to consider the roots and the essence of the information activities. They even may help to break down the young rethoric about the digital divide between generations (instead of within generations and social groups), when everyone over fifty is regarded as IT-dumb. The fact that the Nobel prize for information compression technology was not won by someone under thirty and that those who invented the Internet have already retired somehow escapes the attention.
Looking into early information practices of the British Post Office or the Bank of England helps to outline the general underlying principles of learning organizations and the true importance of information content for organizations rather than only packaging and channeling. The book also provides interesting examples of the early technologies for the latter.
With great interest I have read the chapters on the information profession. There are some parallels (though very few due to the historical circumstances) in the development of the library and information profession in my own country (Lithuania). I imagine that deeper investigation would reveal the same general tendencies in most European countries.
These specific features are set in a very clear theoretical framework and a good overview of the general information context in the society of the period is provided for the reader.
All chapters of the book cater to developing research ideas for doctoral students or mature researchers in other countries than Great Britain and the USA. I am sure that more local historical research into the areas investigated in the book could help us not only to build the more comprehensive picture of how we have arrived to the present situation, but also to cast more reliable prognosis for where we shall find ourselves in the future.
The authors have earned thanks from the whole community of information professionals. I am sure that this book should find its way to every library serving librarianship and information science or similar departments.
Professor Elena Maceviciute