Information Access Seminar

Information and Intrigue: From the Concilium to Noel Field and Alger Hiss

Friday, November 14, 2008
3:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Colin Burke, Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore County

In the 1890s a young Quaker graduate of Harvard's famed zoology program decided to revolutionize the world's science information systems. Using his own funds, as he awaited customers and support from the largest philanthropic and professional organizations, he established the Concilium in Zurich, Switzerland. Cooperating with Paul Otlet to modify Melvil Dewey's numeric classifications he began to create a universal indexing and retrieval system, promising to distribute a "random access, on time" technologically advanced cumulative file of the world's natural science literature. In 1898 Herbert Field launched what he believed would be his contribution to modernization and world peace.

The story of the rise, fall, re-birth, and demise of the Concilium Bibliographicum is more than a near half-century epic of information technology. The fate of the Zurich system was entwined with the emergence of modern science and its non-profit institutions (and its first professional entrepreneur-scholars in America); with espionage in World War I and World War II; with national competition in science publishing; with the attempt to rebuild world science after Versailles; with the ramifications of the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression; and, with the rise and morphing of America's liberal culture.

The biography of the Concilium and its founder and his family travels into the twenty-first century as his children became central to the horrible political purges in Eastern Europe; as science, universities, and science information all became big businesses; as America struggled through the Cold War and conflicts over "information socialism"; and, as the new century shows signs that science information will no longer be the domain of idealists like Herbert Field, the ideologues who ran the great Soviet VINITI information system, or even an Information Scientist like Eugene Garfield. Rather, it seems to have become part of the world of global capitalism.

Last updated:

March 26, 2015