Information and Intrigue: From Index Cards to Dewey Decimals to Alger Hiss

By Colin Burke. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014. 384 pp. $45.00 (hardback). ISBN 978-0-262-02702-1.

Colin Burke in his book Information and Intrigue tells the story of a dynamic “information society” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as it faced the problem of controlling science information. Burke combines intellectual history and biography to give a tour of this period through the life of the American information visionary Herbert Haviland Field (1868-1921). Field was born into a wealthy Brooklyn Quaker family and received training as a zoologist at Harvard. While researching as a young scientist, Field was overwhelmed by the availability of literature both in his own field and in other scientific disciplines. Field became convinced that the problem of “keeping up” was one of the central challenges in moving science ahead. In 1893, Field experienced a version of a Quaker “Calling” to serve the larger scholarly community by applying efficient and rational methods to organize scientific research

In approaching this vast problem, Field sought to create a revolution in science information. In 1896, he formed the Swiss based Concilium Bibliographicum that would serve as a centralized indexing and clearinghouse service for the international science community. This service would provide a framework for international cooperation promoting the liberal ideal of science as a progressive and modernizing force for mankind. The Concilium would be based on regular surveys of the scientific literature, and a card based file that would be classified using a version of Melvil Dewey’s decimal system. Indexing would be carried out by subject specialists that included a full-text rendering of all the key ideas residing in a document. Field envisioned the Concilium as a distributed subscription service with subscribers able to purchase full or partial card sets. In the years before World War I, the Concilium had a subscription list of 160 full purchasers and 500 subscribers to partial card files.

Throughout its operation the Concilium Bibliographicum struggled to survive. Field began the venture with personal funds, contributions from scientific societies, and a small subsidy from the Swiss government. As the project grew in scope, the money to keep it going was never enough. Burke describes how Field became entangled with ideology and political realities while struggling to keep the Concilium in business. World War I hit particularly hard as Field was diverted away from the Concilium for work with Quaker relief agencies. His connections with the European scientific community made him an attractive candidate for recruitment by American intelligence. Field would serve as a paid agent for a young Allen Dulles, and perhaps most notably sent reports to American officials on the threat posed by the communist regime that had just taken power in Russia.

Field tried to revive the fortunes of the Concilium in the years after the war. Burke paints an almost pathetic picture of Field making his case to some of the newly formed philanthropies like the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institution. The card based Concilium was also facing increased competition from popular serial book based indexing tools like Chemical Abstracts, Biological Abstracts, and Engineering Index. Many of these publications reflected the politics of newly professionalized disciplinary societies that wished to support their own bibliographic projects. While waiting for a bare bones “bridge grant” from the Rockefeller Foundation, Field tragically died of influenza in 1921.

The Concilium Bibliographicum continued on after Fields death, and Burke describes the sad attempts to keep it running under the leadership of Johannes Strohl. Facing a declining subscriber base and inadequate funding it finally shut down for good in 1940. A centralized ideal for access to the world’s science information suffered a substantial blow with the demise of the Concilium. Science information emerged from this period as a fragmented system with resources largely provided by national, disciplinary, and commercial interests.

Burke continues the story of the Field family into the next generation providing interesting portraits of Herbert’s sons and daughters. Most time was spent discussing the varied life of his eldest son Noel. Noel Field was a State Department diplomat who become infatuated with communism, eventually becoming a double agent for both American and Soviet intelligence services. Noel was enmeshed in the left wing politics of the 1930s and 1940s, having a close association with fellow diplomat and convicted spy Alger Hiss. In painting a portrait of Noel Field, Burke brings in topics like Soviet espionage, Stalin’s purges, and the witch hunts of the McCarthy era. While these stories are fascinating, they detract from the discussion of the important efforts to control scientific information and compromise some of the book’s focus. The life of Noel Field is compelling on its own merits and would certainly justify a separate biography.

Information and Intrigue succeeds in demonstrating that our society is not alone in being an “information society.” The Concilium Bibliographicum points to information management problems that remain with us today and are reflected in the internet Open Access movement and efforts to create a cooperative world science bibliography. This book would clearly be of great interest to historians, information scientists, and librarians. For any academic or public library this book would be a welcome addition, and may be a particularly good choice for specialized collections in library science and information studies.

Joseph E. Straw, Marietta College, Ohio