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Eugene Garfield


The intellectual seeds of the World Wide Web were disseminated by Eugene Garfield with these early Current Contents essays. Written in 1964, Garfield's Towards the World Brain remembers the vision of H.G. Wells and calls for a renewed effort to build the World Brain for science.

Towards the World Brain
by Eugene Garfield

In 1938 H.G. Wells described his conception of the future information center. He called it the World Brain (1). The book bearing this title is really a collection of Wellsain essays, some of which have little or nothing to do with information retrieval. In a recent article published in Science (2), I used the idea of the World Brain as literary device to place the Science Citation Index in proper historical perspective. Subsequently, in what started out to be a review of the 1961 Science Citation Index, Steinbach (3) questioned the value of a World Brain because it ostensibly plants the seed of authoritarianism. These arguments sound very much like those one hears about the potential but not always realized dangers of science. In short, knowledge, like power, can be dangerous. It is the unique role of man to make the proper choices in the use of power and knowledge for good or evil.

World information centers are badly needed. No university could operate effectively without library facilities, and world-wide multidisciplinary research cannot be conducted efficiently without convenient access to broad-based information sources. The idea of a World Brain is a general concept towards which we seem to be moving. As things stand at present, the situation in scientific information is quite chaotic. To dramatize this point, there follows below a passage from my testimony before a Congressional committee which has been investigating the need for an American-based World Brain. This testimony may provide a little more insight into the rationale of the Science Citation Index and how it will be a giant step in the direction of the World Brain which, I believe, far from being authoritarian, is a step in the direction of freedom.

Prepared Statement by Dr. Eugene Garfield (4)

We all take the telephone for granted. When we have to wait more than a few seconds for a dial tone, we grow impatient and frustrated. When we call information - seconds seem like hours. We also take for granted the telephone directory - that innocuous books which methodically lists names and numbers in alphabetic order. Imagine the chaos in the telephone company information centers in one day every other page in everyone's phone books were missing. Imagine your frustration if most telephone numbers were "unlisted" - if a special, prolonged, and elaborate effort was necessary each time you made a call.

Contemplate the chaos in your city if there were hundreds of different phone books - some arranged by people's national origins, others by occupations, by district, or by name - yet none of them complete. Each time you needed a phone number you would have to know whether your friend was Irish, or a janitor, or whether he lived in the north side of town. Suppose that is each city the system was different - each used a different terminology or system of spelling -  a janitor might be a superintendent or a maintenance engineer.

Suppose each of these phone books, large and small, is only half complete and at least a year old when it arrives. Suppose that phone books were not free but cost so much that only libraries could afford them. Imagine your frustration if you had to go to the library each time you wanted to make a phone call.

Now what has this all to do with the so-called information crisis? The situation I have just hypothecated is a fairly accurate description of scientific communication today. There are some obvious exaggerations. On the other hand, there are even more chaotic aspects difficult to convey by simple analogy. We all use the yellow pages, the classified directory, and frequently find it difficult to locate a number because of the peculiarities in our language. Gas stations are listed under service stations and sell gasoline; gas companies may be listed under power companies and sell gas. In science, terminology is constantly changing - faster than lexicographers or dictionary publishers can cope with. Every scientific dictionary is obsolete long before it is published.

In science communication, we not only call local numbers - we are constantly trying to place long-distance transoceanic calls because science is international. Our telephone operators, the information scientists and librarians, must be able to handle dozens of languages including Japanese, Russian, and other exotic tongues.

However, this is only the beginning of the difficulties. After painfully identifying the telephone number of the scientific document he needs, the scientist can't simply dial the number. He may be lucky and find that it is a local exchange. Quite frequently he will find that he must call a Washington exchange or some other remote city. But scientists are stubbornly persevering, and having learned the proper exchange, put through the call only to find the line is busy. In fact, the average waiting time is a few weeks - and by then - if that hasn't discouraged him - he may find that he called the wrong exchange, the number is out of order, or disconnected, temporarily or permanently. It is not surprising that by the time his call does get through he has sometimes forgotten why he called in the first place.

The working scientist places hundreds and thousands of such calls each year. He would call more often if he did not anticipate, consciously or intuitively, delay and frustration. The net result is that he gives up and only makes a call when he is absolutely desperate. If he can afford the luxury he will turn the job over to someone else - an assistant or librarian.

Today's system of scientific communication is absolutely chaotic. That we are able to operate with it at all is a tribute to human perseverance. Science communication is still in the pony express era.

(1) H. G. Wells, WORLD BRAIN (Doubleday, Doran, Garden City, NY, 1938)
(2) E. Garfield, "SCIENCE CITATION INDEX - A New Dimension in Indexing", Science 144 (3619), 649- (1964)

 

Towards the World Brain originally appeared in Current Contents, October 6, 1964 and also appears in Essays of an Information Scientist, Vol. 1, by Eugene Garfield, ISI Press, 1977. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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