Should knowledge be available to everyone? How do we create ways to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful?” No, I am actually not talking about Google, but rather about the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when people like Paul Otlet actually had similar ambitions, and created the Mundaneum to achieve the goal of creating universally accessible knowledge. Otlet also hoped that by doing this, he would advance the cause of world peace. To me, it seems that we are fighting similar battles today. Will open access to knowledge create a virtual utopia where all knowledge about every topic is available? What institutions are needed to ensure the reliability of information?
A first step in answering these questions in a historical context happened at a conference I attended recently called the “The Science of Information: Universalization of Knowledge in a Utopian age.” The Utopia being discussed was the period between roughly 1870 and 1940 when figures like Otlet, William Pepper, and others were working to make information available and accessible to the world. Otlet created the Mundaneum; Pepper helped to found the Free Library of Philadelphia (among other institutions). Participants at the conference noted, however, that during the later part this period (1930s and 40s) figures like Adolf Hitler also began their working at creating a “utopia” that was very different, and the American government also worked to create better surveillance (for good or ill depending on your point of view) of people within and outside of their borders.
In all, the conference really was about what I would term scholarly communication, and in order to talk about scholarly communication, it is necessary to talk about several related concepts including science, information, and the idea of universal knowledge. The participants noted that these concepts actually had multiple (sometimes not completely compatible) definitions in fields like history, information science, literature, and architecture (the disciplines of just a few of the participants). Also, many of the speakers would not have identified themselves as researching “scholarly communication,”though some of them would have. In my view, the diversity of participants and their inability to agree on definitions of some of the basic concepts simply demonstrates how difficult it can be to research the history of a field like scholarly communication which itself is not particularly well defined.
More importantly, however, I think the fact that this conference had enough people coming from all of these fields shows a recognition that this area of research is important. Interestingly, nearly all of the speakers also made allusions to current political events happening worldwide (the election of Trump, Brexit, and the rise of populism). It seems to me that in the same way that the internet had its figures like Otlet who believed that the internet would create a Utopia. Now, we are beginning to see the other (dystopian) side of that dream.
Perhaps by understanding the history of a previous time in which similar Utopianism started in the 1870s with a belief in unending progress and ended in 1940 with two world wars, we can try to better understand the role that communication (and particularly scholarly communication) played. Alex Csisizar, one of the speakers at the conference, has argued that “We need richer, more nuanced ways of talking about the collective belief that take into account the complexity of scientific interactions and how those forms evolve along with regulatory frameworks used for evaluating scientific claims relevant to public policy.” I could not agree more, and hopefully conferences like this provide the first steps in more interdisciplinary discussions that address the topics that scholars like Csiszar have identified. Moreover, perhaps such conversations about scholarly communication can help to drive productive agendas for the future. At a time when we are debating the very role that science plays in society, and scientists are marching for better recognition. It seems to me that these historical conversations are extremely relevant in today’s world.
(Image described at https://beyondarchives.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/paul-otlet-world-city/)