The Early Information Society: Information Management in Britain before the Computer

Patricia Layzell Ward (Penrhyndeudraeth, Gwynedd, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 18 April 2008




Layzell Ward, P. (2008), "The Early Information Society: Information Management in Britain before the Computer", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 4, pp. 316-317.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The Arts and Humanities Research Board are to be commended for funding a research project in 2001 from which this title has emerged. The authors have been able to record certain selected aspects of recent professional history with the benefit of being able to interview a few of the notable contributors to the management of scientific and technical information during the past 50 years. Amongst those whose contributions are acknowledged are Brian Vickery, Eugene Garfield and the late Douglas Foskett. The authors have also drawn extensively upon the literature of the period and this is indicated in footnotes.

The text is presented in four parts. In the first part the authors take a sceptical view of the proposition of the information society drawing on what they label as “information history”. The second part considers the role of the state in the emergence of an information society in Britain. The role of information management in business and government with the advent of computing is examined in the third part. Women and their participation in the “information occupations” form the focus of the final part.

In approaching their topics, the authors have taken an academic approach, understandably given the nature of their funding. There are useful references to the early information services and technical and special libraries in the UK, particularly since much of the literature is not to be found in secondary services. The work of Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux (Aslib), the emergence of the Institute of Information Scientists and the role of the Library Association are discussed detailing the politics involved. Aslib played a major role in providing support services to organisations such as the important translations index in the late 1950s and 1960s, short courses, consultancy services, research and highlighting the importance of social science information. It was an important meeting place for practitioners who also valued the Aslib Handbook – not mentioned. The IIS emerged in the late 1950s as a body promoted by and for scientists engaged in information work. (The writer was turned down for membership when it was formed but later invited to join as “an eminent member of the profession” when the IIS needed to extend its membership numbers.)

Special librarians within the Library Association were always in the minority but often had a strong voice. The supporting role that public libraries played in accessing scientific and technical information needs emphasis since they provided information services in the larger industrial conurbations and organised local co‐operative groups for the smaller special libraries. It was to the disadvantage of all three bodies, and their members, that that internal politics impeded closer working together.

There are some strands of research that the authors might have pursued. In the post‐war period economic development, the growth of large industrial companies and government departments prompted a concern from both the information staff and top management that information was being held within the silos that had formed within organisations. There was a realization that a way should be found to get people to communicate across the organisation and information professionals: for example Peter Hoey promoting the concept of indexes of expertise which focussed on the value of tacit information, need to be identified. Another line of enquiry might have been a deeper study of the work of OSTI and later the British Library R&D Department.

There are several references to Lyon's Electronic Office (LEO) and information work at J. Lyons & Co. and one point that has been overlooked is that Margaret Thatcher worked in the research laboratories and one wonders if she brought this experience to bear in setting in place IT'82 which promoted the use of information technology in the UK. The role of women in industry would have benefited from a note about the reason why strong women came to the fore in all occupations in the 1930s and the influences of the period between the end of the Second World War before the introduction of sex discrimination legislation. Women were often forced to resign on marriage. This is well‐documented in the library literature.

The strong point of text is that it is based on an extensive literature review. However, it reads as a series of research reports. There is considerable overlap between the chapters and it would have benefited from further editing, especially since it is priced at £60.00. Having been critical, it is a good start at research on the topic but needs reworking to set it in a wider context of economic, technological and social developments of the period. There is scope for interviews of some more of the ageing generation of information professionals working during the period 1945 to say 1970.

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