Information Beyond Borders: International Cultural and Intellectual Exchange in the Belle Époque

Edited by W. Boyd Rayward. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014. 336 pp. $124.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-4094-4225-7.

Can the past provide examples of a world linked together by nearly instantaneous communication? Were past discoveries dependent on the work of scientific networks sharing ideas across national boundaries? Did past economic innovation function within a global order relying on intelligence flows from every corner of the world? W. Boyd Rayward in his edited book Information Beyond Borders: International Cultural and Intellectual Exchange in the Belle Époque offers a series of papers that answer yes to all of these questions. Rayward and his contributors argue that the questions themselves provide a description and example of a dynamic information society that thrived in the European belle époque that roughly spanned the years 1880-1914.

This book has its origins in the colloquium “Transcending Boundaries in the Period of the Belle Époque: Organizing Knowledge, Mobilizing Networks and Effecting Social Change” that took place in Mons, Belgium in May 2010. The published essays are authored by an eclectic group of scholars that include historians, information scientists, architects, and media researchers. Their tone provides a powerful corrective to much of the “presentism” that anchors claims about the uniqueness of our contemporary information society. Rayward in the introduction points to continuities with our own age when he characterizes the belle époque as one of great speed which saw the construction of vast infrastructures that wired the world into an interdependent information network. These infrastructures included the telegraph, teletype, and telephone that allowed for instantaneous real time communication for its users. This was of course an important response to the ongoing Industrial Revolution that was leaving in its path huge informational challenges that needed to be managed. The rise of large scale electronic communications accelerated the movement of workflows, ideas, innovations, and news that provided the impetus for the organization of a new global society based on knowledge.

International cultural and intellectual exchange would be an important element of this new society. The development of structures to manage, process, and disseminate information worldwide is the unifying theme of the book. Each of the chapters deals with efforts either practical or utopian to extend the reach of human endeavors across borders and boundaries. The topics covered in the essays include international exhibitions, information technology, social science associations, classification systems, scientific exchange, global news agencies, competitive business intelligence, commercial museums, universal languages, and plans for a world capital. Far from only describing the elimination of physical distance, the essays are interesting case studies in how networks of people working in common can transcend disciplinary and philosophical boundaries to understand and apply information in new ways.

In describing these topics, the contributors highlight many of the important people associated with the exchange movement that would include Ernst Kapp, Peter Eijkmann, Alfred Fried, Wilhelm Ostwald, Walter Glineur, Paul Otlet, and Henri La Fontaine. These men shared a belief that knowledge exchange could be used to benefit a rapidly changing society. Many of them believed that information should be thought of as a science that when used properly could transform the world. This notion of science would go beyond discovering natural phenomena, and extend to becoming the organizing principle of society. If scientific methods could be applied to social problems, change and justice could only be the inevitable result. This spirit informed the basic idealism and institution building of the people that led the efforts to globalize intellectual exchange in the belle époque.

The exchange networks described in the book attempted to address a number of broader societal problems that would include poverty, social welfare, pacifism, and world government. Much of the international information exchange in the belle époque had varying degrees of success in trying to create a better world. Rayward and his contributors strongly suggest that this global society might have been more broadly extended if national interests had not prevailed with the outbreak of the first world war in 1914. Despite the catastrophe of war, many of these efforts established standards that would help to conceive and build the knowledge networks that impact our lives in our own time.

Information Beyond Borders is a solid contribution to a growing historiography that sees our information age as part of a continuity with information societies that existed in the distant past. The essays are sharp and insightful in bringing to life the dynamic world of knowledge exchange in the belle époque. This book would be of great interest to historians concerned with intellectual, cultural, and information history. Certainly this book can be recommended as a good selection for any academic library, particularly those collections specializing in history, library science, and information studies.

Joseph E. Straw, Marietta College, Ohio