Information and Intrigue

From History and Foundations of Information Science

Information and Intrigue

From Index Cards to Dewey Decimals to Alger Hiss

By Colin B. Burke

An account of Herbert Field's quest for a new way of organizing information and how information systems are produced by ideology as well as technology.





An account of Herbert Field's quest for a new way of organizing information and how information systems are produced by ideology as well as technology.

In Information and Intrigue Colin Burke tells the story of one man's plan to revolutionize the world's science information systems and how science itself became enmeshed with ideology and the institutions of modern liberalism. In the 1890s, the idealistic American Herbert Haviland Field established the Concilium Bibliographicum, a Switzerland-based science information service that sent millions of index cards to American and European scientists. Field's radical new idea was to index major ideas rather than books or documents. In his struggle to create and maintain his system, Field became entangled with nationalistic struggles over the control of science information, the new system of American philanthropy (powered by millionaires), the politics of an emerging American professional science, and in the efforts of another information visionary, Paul Otlet, to create a pre-digital worldwide database for all subjects.

World War I shuttered the Concilium, and postwar efforts to revive it failed. Field himself died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Burke carries the story into the next generation, however, describing the astonishingly varied career of Field's son, Noel, who became a diplomat, an information source for Soviet intelligence (as was his friend Alger Hiss), a secret World War II informant for Allen Dulles, and a prisoner of Stalin. Along the way, Burke touches on a range of topics, including the new entrepreneurial university, Soviet espionage in America, and further efforts to classify knowledge.


$50.00 X ISBN: 9780262027021 384 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 11 b&w photos


  • Burke provides a unique presentation of the many organizations in the late 1890s and the early 1900s in both the United States and Europe, which were beginning to develop service businesses with information as the product. The actions of these groups varied from conflicting to competitive to collegial to cooperative, often changing over time. Of particular relevance was the desire for recognition and funding.

    Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology


  • Told through the lens of the work of a largely unrecognized American genius named Herbert Haviland Field, Colin Burke's new book ably recounts the story of the dawn of the information age, where greater access to information drove forward scientific developments to startling and unforeseen heights, and presaged the age of what we now refer to as 'Big Information,' where anyone anywhere with a laptop computer and an Internet connection can gain access to vast amounts of information. If you want to understand the genesis of today's global technological revolution, this book is essential reading.

    Matthew M. Aid

    Intelligence historian and author of The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency

  • I confess that I had never heard of Herbert Haviland Field. Once I started to read the book I could not stop. The way Burke has integrated the personal lives of all these characters is amazing. It is the stuff of a classic novel, even while you know it is all historically accurate. For people like me who have admired the work of Paul Otlet it was eye-opening to learn of the connection between Field, the Concilium Bibliographicum, and the Mundaneum. It should become a must-read for all students of library and information science, not to mention the huge audience of intelligence analysts worldwide.

    Eugene Garfield

    Chair Emeritus, Thomson Reuters IP & Science (formerly Institute for Scientific Information), Philadelphia