Open Journal Systems

World Libraries | Volume 11 | Numbers 1 & 2 | Williams

Book Review

A History of Information Storage and Retrieval. By Stockwell, Foster. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2001. ISBN 0‑7864‑0840‑5. $39.95.

If the content of this book matched the title it would be a welcome addition to a very scant literature. Unfortunately, it is only minimally about the history of information storage and retrieval (ISR). A more accurate title would be something like: a general history of encyclopedias, with random comments on issues tangentially related to ISR over 4,000 years.

In twenty chapters the author surveys the development of the idea of knowledge accumulation, preservation, and transmission through libraries, books, and, especially, encyclopedias from the beginning of recorded history to the end of the 20th century. “It focuses mainly on the history of encyclopedias, because these single and multivolumed books are still viewed by many persons as the primary storage and retrieval vessels.” (p. 1–2) While this is a doubtful assumption (electronic databases being a much stronger candidate in the last 40 years), the author does a nice job with a number of aspects, particularly the changing ideas and efforts to compile encyclopedias. Ancient, Greek, Asian, and Chinese efforts in the development of knowledge are given their appropriate recognition, unlike many other sources which emphasize only Western developments. In fact, this is the single best feature of the volume and one wishes for greater expansion of the topic because it is so poorly covered in other works. (The author is a publishing consultant to Chinese publishers and authors and has made good use of his expertise in this area.) The medieval period and the development of printing are given general but appropriate coverage. The remaining chapters (about two thirds of the volume) concentrate on giving a survey of the development of encyclopedias: Bacon, Diderot, Coleridge, the Britannica, and modern encyclopedias. While most of the history of each encyclopedia is general, the discussion of the marketing of these works is more detailed and nicely explored. A useful appendix lists general encyclopedias published in English and an adequate index is provided.

There are a number of puzzling gaps and off–theme aspects to the volume. The chapter titled “The Uses and Misuses of the Bible” (Chapter 7) is almost entirely a series of refutations of various fundamentalist arguments about Biblical inerrancy. Almost no attention is given to issues about the manuscript sources of the Bible, its compilation, translation concerns, and related religious knowledge preservation problems. Similarly, the chapter on Bacon spends little time on his classification system (a true ISR issue) and other chapters devote little attention to the major classification systems, such Dewey Decimal, Universal Decimal Classification system (the first classification system to permit Boolean logic searching strategies), LC classification, Bliss, Ranganathan’s colon classification system, and others. The development of subject headings for library catalogs is briefly addressed but no mention is made of the development of thesauri, free language searching, automatic indexing, and related topics, all vital issues in ISR. And, just when it is expected that decent attention will be given to the early mechanized ISR systems, the author repeats the old saw that Vannevar Bush is the beginning of new ideas in information retrieval, ignoring recent scholarship that shows his ideas had been developed much earlier by Goldberg, Otlet, and others. (1) Even more disturbing however, for a book with this title, is the lack of treatment of punched card ISR systems, the development of mechanized Boolean retrieval systems, online searching, chemical ISR, and many other systems developed first in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Development of the Internet is addressed but little attention is given to Web search engines and how they relate to earlier efforts for mechanized searching, recall and precision, and ISR systems evaluation.

It is true that these are big topics and this is a small volume but recognition that a literature, even the beginnings of a historical literature, (2) on them does exist is a major problem in a book with such an expansive title. Similarly neglected is any mention of recent scholarship that explores the history of the several “information revolutions” and how they relate to the current concerns of our time in this Information Age.(3) A brief bibliography of sources is provided at the end of the volume but it does not satisfy the concerns expressed above nor does it really fully support the references found in the text, Recommended for general collections in Library and Information Science but not for research collections in ISR.

  • (1) See the various articles on Goldberg, Otlet, and other earlier researchers in ISR in: Hahn, Trudi B. and Buckland, Michael, eds., Historical Studies in Information Science. Medford, NJ: Info Today for the American Society for Information Science, 1998.

  • (2) Bowden, Mary, Hahn, Trudi B, and Williams, Robert V., eds., History and Heritage of Science Information Systems.... Medford, NJ: Info Today for the American Society for Information Science, 1999.

  • (3) (3) See, for example, the following recent monographs: Headrick, Daniel R, When Information Comes of Age.... Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000; Hobart, Michael E. and Schiffman, Zachery S., Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998; James J. O’Donnell, Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1998.

About the author

Robert V. Williams is Professor and Director of Research Center, College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina. Email:

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