#CityLIS Student Perspectives: A who’s who of Library and Information Science by Thomas Ash

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by current #citylis student, Thomas Ash, and forms a most fantastic rundown of some of the most famous faces in Library and Information Science.


In celebration of the start of this years #citylis, I thought it might be fun to write a very brief who’s who guide to some of the main figures in Library and Information Science. It is by no means definitive, so feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below if you feel someone is missing (Ed: Indeed! I have added a little bit about Ada Lovelace – who else do you think should be added: Bertram Brookes, David Bawden, Jason Farradane, Lyn Robinson, Marcia Bates? Leave a Reply here, or on Thomas’s original post).

Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (668-around 630 BC)

The Royal lion hunt reliefs from the Assyrian palace at Nineveh , 645-635 BC, British Museum. by Johnbod CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Royal lion hunt reliefs from the Assyrian palace at Nineveh , 645-635 BC, British Museum. by Johnbod CC-BY-SA-4.0

The last great King of the Neo-Assyrian empire in Nineveh near Mosul in Iraq. Ashurbanipal was responsible for assembling The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, thought to be the oldest surviving Royal Library in the world. The library consisted of 30,000 cuneiform tablets and writing boards on a range of subjects including historical inscriptions, letters, administrative and legal texts, alongside found thousands of divinatory, magical, medical, literary and lexical texts.

The fragmented remains were discovered in the 1850s and are now kept in the British Museum. In 2002 the Ashurbanipal Library Project was setup between the museum and University of Mosul, in Iraq, with aim of cataloguing and digitizing the library to make it available to new and future generations.

Further reading:  The British Museum The Library of Ashurbanipal

. . .

Thomas Bodley (2 March 1545 – 29 January 1613)

Thomas Bodley – Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Bodley – Wikimedia Commons

Founder of Oxford’s famous Bodleian Library. After a career as an Oxford academic, Member of Parliament and diplomat for Queen Elizabeth the First, Bodley set about restoring the Library known as Duke Humfrey’s, which had fallen into disrepair. The restored library reopened in 1602 containing some 2000 volumes, and included works in Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Chinese. Today the Bodleian is one of Europe’s oldest libraries and also functions as one of the UK’s six  legal deposit library alongside the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, the University Library, Cambridge, and. the Library of Trinity College, Dublin.

Further reading: The Death of Thomas Bodley

Bodleian Library: History of the Bodleian

. . .

Suzanne Briet (1 February 1894 – 13 February 1989)

Suzanne Briet

Suzanne Briet

Known as Madame Documentation, Renée-Marie-Hélène-Suzanne Briet was born in Ardennes, but grew up in Paris. She began her career in librarianship at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 1924 and would go on to shape both the field of  librarianship and Documentation. At the BNF Briet was responsible for establishing the Office of Documentation, Alongside Chemist  Jean Gérard she was responsible for co-founding the Union Française des Organismes de Documentation (UFOD) in 1931, the french equivalent of ASLIB or the American Documentation Institution. Brie Went on to influence the development of library education in her role as Director of the  l’Institut National des Techniques de la Documentation one of France’s oldest library schools.

In 1951 Briet published her treatise on Documentation:  Qu’est-ce que la documentation?, a text of great significance that considers documents not as material objects but “evidence in support of a fact“. Her expanded definition of documentation, marked a departure from previous definitions asking the question:

“Is a star a document? Is a pebble rolled by a torrent a document? Is a living animal a document? No. But the photographs and the catalogues of stars, the stones in a museum of mineralogy , and the animals that are cataloged and shown in a zoo, are documents.”

In 1997, Michael Buckland’s What is a Document? revived interest in Briet’s concept of Documentation and led to a renewed interest in the study of Documentation, providing  a foundation for modern debates about the nature of documents.

Further reading: On Documenting Performance and Suzanne Briet

Briet, S., et al (2006) What is documentation?: English translation of the classic French text, Scarecrow Press.

What is a Document? / Michael Buckland

. . .

Richard de Bury (1281–1345)

Portait of Richard De Bury via eBooks@Adelaide

Portait of Richard De Bury via eBooks@Adelaide

Born at Bury St. Edmunds, Richard de Bury was a Benedictine monk, he studied at Oxford and became tutor to the Prince of wales, the future Edward III. Bury was a skilled diplomat and administrator, serving as keeper of the privy seal, chancellor and treasurer of the exchequer.  One of the first English book collectors, he founded a library at Durham, searching far and wide for books and manuscripts. Prior to his death on 1345 De Bury wrote his Philobiblon, a collection of essays concerning the acquisition, preservation, and organization of books, in which he describes ‘his means and method’ of  collecting books.

Further reading: The Love of Books: The Philobiblon of Richard De Bury – Translated Into English By E. C. Thomas

The Spectator Archives  The “Philobiblon ” of Richard De Bury. 

. . .

Melvil Dewey (10 December  1851—26 December 1931)

Melvil Dewey

Melvil Dewey

Melville Louis Kossuth (Melvil) Dewey, called “the father of modern librarianship” invented the Dewey Decimal Classification(DDC) system and helped establish the American Library Association, the ALA. At the age of  21 whilst working on the reclassification library of Amherst College, Dewey devised a system of decimal numbers on top of a knowledge structure originally outlined by Francis Bacon. The system outlined in A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library, became the Dewey Decimal Classification System, which he Copyrighted in 1876.

Having helped establish the ALA that same year, he served as secretary from 1876 to 1890 and then president for the 1890/1891 and 1892/1893 terms. Alongside R.R. Bowker and Frederick Leypoldt he became co-founder and editor of the Library Journal.  In the year, following his appointment as librarian of Columbia College in 1883, Dewey founded the first ever library school, the School of Library Economy, which opened in 1887,with a cohort of 20 students, mostly women, at Dewey’s insistence.

Following his move to New York State Library, in Albany, the school was reestablished under his direction as the New York State Library School.  As director of the New York State Library (1889 to 1906),  secretary of the University of the State of New York (until 1900) he reorganized the New York state library, into one of the most efficient in the United States. He was also responsible for establishing a system of traveling libraries and picture collections. Dewey, died of a stroke on 26th December 1931 at the age of 80.

Further reading: Irrepressible Reformer / Wiegand

. . .

Luciano Floridi (Born 16 November 1964)

Luciano Floridi via Oxford Internet Institute

Luciano Floridi via Oxford Internet Institute

Luciano Floridi is currently Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford, and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab of the Oxford Internet Institute. Flordi’s main areas of research are Information and Computer Ethics (Digital Ethics), the Philosophy of Information, and the Philosophy of Technology. His current work includes the lifelong project, Principia Philosophiae Informationis, the Information tetralogy.

Floridi’s work in the area of Information Philosophy and Digital Ethics is extensive having published more than 150 papers on these subjects.

In his Floridi’s central premise of his Information Philosophy is that :

Semantic Information is well formed, meaningful and truthful data. Knowledge is relevant semantic information properly accounted for: humans are the only known semantic engines and conscious inforgs (informational organisms) in the universe who can develop a growing knowledge of reality and the totality of information.(note the crucial absence of semantic)

Floridi also argues that we are moving into the 4th revolution, following the Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian revolutions. In the Fourth Revolution information becomes our environment, the ‘infosphere‘. Floridi argues that following the Fourth revolutions we are becoming interconnected inforgs amongst other inforgs, our online personalities and personas begin to bleed into our ‘real lives’ leading to a phenomenon known as onlife.  Floridi’s work confronts the philosophical, ethical and moral issues of this new reality in which we find ourselves, what Flordi deems the ‘information ontology’ including the ethics of, Information, Onlife and particularly Artificial Intelligence.

Further Reading:

Floridi, L. (2010) Information: a very short introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Floridi, L. (2011) The philosophy of information, Oxford University Press, Oxford. (Volume one of the Tetralogy)
Floridi, L. (2013) The ethics of information, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom. (Volume two of the Tetralogy)
Floridi, L., (2014) The 4th revolution: how the infosphere is reshaping human reality, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom. (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Edited volumes include:
Floridi, L.(2004) The Blackwell guide to the philosophy of computing and information, Blackwell Pub, Malden, MA.
Floridi, L.(2010) The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Floridi, L., (2016) The Routledge handbook of philosophy of information, Routledge, London.

. . .

Conrad Gesner (26 March 1516 – 13 December 1565)

Conrad Gesner by Conrad Meyer 1662

Conrad Gesner by Conrad Meyer 1662

Conrad Gesner was a Swiss physician and naturalist born in Zurich 1516. As a child he demonstrated an aptitude for both Greek and Latin and at school studied classical languages and theology in Strasbourg. In 1533 he was given a scholarship to study medicine in Bourges University, France.

. In 1537 he produced his first Greek–Latin dictionary and in 1545 he published his Bibliotheca universalis, a bibliography of 1800 author listed alphabetically, and accompanied by annotations and listings of each author works. The work the first of its kind took him four years to complete and earned him the name “the father of bibliography.” 

Between 1551–1558 Gesner produced his greatest Zoological work, the Historiae Animalium, a four volume bibliography of writings on natural history, combined with encyclopaedic descriptions of every known animal. A fifth volume covering  snakes and scorpions was published after his death in 1587. The book was illustrated with some 1,200 hand drawn woodcuts. Gesner’s unique method of arranging his notes involved cutting them into slips and arranging them as desired. Gesner’s other works included studies of plants and his final book De Omni Rerum Fossilium (A Book on Fossil Objects, Chiefly Stones and Gems, their Shapes and Appearances), in which he stressed the importance of the form of an object to its classification. He died of plague in 1565, having published 72 books, and written 18 more unpublished manuscripts.

Further reading: Gesner: Conradi Gesneri medici Tigurini Historiae animalium

Strange Science: Conrad Gesner

Egmond, F. (2013) “A collection within a collection: rediscovered animal drawings from the collections of Conrad Gessner and Felix Platter”, Journal of the History of Collections,. 25(2), pp. 149-170.

. . .

Johannes Gutenberg (born 14th century, Mainz —died probably February 3, 1468)

Anonymous portrait of Johannes Gutenberg dated 1440, Gutenberg Museum

Anonymous portrait of Johannes Gutenberg dated 1440, Gutenberg Museum

Johann Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, son of an upper class merchant, was born in Mainz, Germany and devised the printing press that precipitated the “Printing Revolution in Europe”. Specifically It was Guttenberg’s method of printing with movable type, that would usher in the development of printed books in the west, influencing the reformation, renaissance and libraries. Although little is known of his life, around 1428/1430 he is thought to have moved to Strassburg (modern Strasbourg, France), following a dispute between Guilds. With Strasbourg at war Gutenberg is thought to have returned to Mainz around 1448.

Between 1450 and 1453 he entered into business with Johann Fust, who helped him to purchase the tools and materials he needed. However, by 1452, Guttenburg was heavily in debt to Fust and unable to repay the loan. A new agreement was entered into by the two men which made Fust a partner in Guttenberg’s business, however by 1455, Guttenberg was once again unable to pay.

Fust sued, successfully winning ownership of Guttenberg’s business, including his press and  his masterpiece, “Forty-Two-Line” Bible , which Guttenberg had first managed to print at some point during the course of the trial. With Fust’s son in-law joining him in his newly business acquired business they went on to produce the first ever book to bear the name of it’s printers’, the Psalter (Book of Psalms). The Mainz Psalter was printed with 2 colour capitals, using a method of woodblocks and multiple inking no doubt pioneered by Guttenberg and put into practice by Fust and Schoeffer.

In 1462 Fust and Schoeffer’s business was destroyed in the sack of Mainz. Guttenberg remained in the city, and continued his printing, although, since he didn’t put his name to his outputs little is known about what he printed. He died in February, 1468, and was buried in the church of the Franciscan convent in Eltville, Germany.

Further reading:

Barbier, F. (20170) Gutenberg’s Europe: the book and the invention of Western modernity, Polity, Cambridge.
Baron, S.A.,Lindquist, E.N. & Shevlin, E.F. (2007) Agent of change: print culture studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, University of Massachusetts Press, Washington, D.C.

Eisenstein, E.L. (2012) The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

McKitterick, D. (2003) Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order 1450-1830, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

 . . .

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1 July 1646 – 14 November 1716)

By Kopie nach Andreas Scheits (um 1655–1735), deutscher Maleruploader was Hajotthu at de.wikipedia (Museum Herrenhausen Palace) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Kopie nach Andreas Scheits (um 1655–1735), deutscher Maleruploader was Hajotthu at de.wikipedia (Museum Herrenhausen Palace) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Born in in Leipzig, Saxony, during the 30 Years War, Leibniz was a philosopher and polymath. Thanks to his farther’s extensive library of Greek and Latin texts, he was able to read by the age of four and by the age of eight had taught himself latin. By 1662 he had already completed a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy at the University of Liepzig. He served as Librarian to the Duke of Guelph, at the Leineschloss Palace and in 1691 he was appointed as Librarian of the Herzog August Library at Wolfenbuettel, containing some 100,000 volumes, and which Leibniz helped design.

Liebniz’s first discussion on the ordering of libraries appeared in his Leibniz discussed the order of books in a library in Nouveaux Essais sur l’Entendement humain, a rebuttal of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, written between 1703 and 1705, but not published until 1765.

As a Librarian Leibniz devised classification schemes that he detailed in his Representation to His Serene Highness the Duke of Wolfenbüttel, for the Purposes of Encouraging the Maintenance of His Library. In 1679 he devised the modern binary number system, which today’s computers are based upon, in his Explication de l’Arithmétique Binaire(published in 1703). Using the device known as the “Leibniz Wheel’ he developed a calculating machine that could Add,Subtract, Multiply and Divide, which continued to be used in calculating machines throughout the 20th Century.

Further reading:

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Davis, M. (2012) The universal computer: the road from Leibniz to Turing, Turing centenary edn, CRC Press, Boca Raton, Fla.

. . .

Carl Linnaeus (23 May 1707 – 10 January 1778)

Carl von Linné, Alexander Roslin, 1775

Carl von Linné, Alexander Roslin, 1775

Swedish botanist and the father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus was born 1707 the eldest of five children, in Råshult, Sweden. At an early age, he was taught the names of every plant, by his father Nils, a keen gardener who took his son into the garden whenever he could. By 1728, having spent a year at University of Lund studying medicine, Linnaues transferred to Upsalla University. Whilst there he wrote a thesis, Praeludia Sponsaliorum Plantarum, on the classification of plants based on their sexual parts. The thesis caught the attention of Professor Olof Rudbeck and led him to ask Linnaeus to become a lecturer in botany.

Between 1732 and 1735 Linnaues travelled throughout Sweden including to Lapland, where he hoped to learn all he could about the country’s flora, fauna and natural resources. During his travels he used his binomial system of nomenclature to describe his findings and discovered great quantities of the twin flower Campanula serpyllifolia,later known as Linnea borealis. His Flora Lapponica described 534 species using his Linnaean classification and taxonomy. In 1735 he published his Systema Naturae in which he first established the three kingdoms that are still used today, Animal Vegetable and Mineral or Regnum Animale, Regnum Vegetabile and Regnum Lapideum. Alongside the Species plantarum the book is still used today by scientists and the basis for naming animals and plants respectively.

Further Reading: Who was Carl Linnaeus?

Quammen, D. (2007) Linnaeus: The Name Giver, National Geographic

. . .

Gabriel Naudé (2 February 1600 – 10 July 1653)

Gabriel Naudé. Line engraving by C. Mellan, 1765, after himself – CC BY 4.0 Wellcome Images

Gabriel Naudé. Line engraving by C. Mellan, 1765, after himself – CC BY 4.0 Wellcome Images
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Gabriel Naudé. Line engraving by C. Mellan, 1765, after himself.
1765 By: Claude MellanPublished: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Born in Paris 1600, Naudé was well educated and was an avid reader of authors classic and modern. Having attended several colleges, and receiving the title master of arts he enrolled in the University of Paris to study medicine. Despite his medical training Naudé would never practice medicine and instead was offered the position of Librarian to President Henri de Mesme. Whilst working for de Mesmes, whose library contained some 8,000 printed books, Naudé would write his famous Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque, considered the first modern treatise on Librarianship. Addressed to his patron de Mesme Naudé’s Advis consisted of 9 chapters dealing with the selection, acquisition and arrangement of books under the subject headings that included “Theologie, Physick, Iurisprudence, Mathematicks,  and Humanity”. Naudé’ used his Advis to advocate his vision for a universal library that was open to the public. Following, his time in the Bibliotheque Memmiana Naudé returned to his medical studies before he was asked to join Cardinal Bagni the Vatican ambassador in Paris when returned to Italy in 1629. Naudé returned to Paris in 1642, and the following year he entered into the service of France’s first minister Cardinal Mazarin, once again in the role of Librarian. In service to Mazarin, Naudé sought to establish France’s first public library and would spend the next ten years devoted to the creation and development of his Universal Library in the shape of the Bibliotheque Mazarine, in Paris.

Further Reading:  Naudé, Mazarin and the origins of France’s oldest public library

Kelley, D.R.(1997) History and the disciplines: the reclassification of knowledge in early modern Europe, University of Rochester Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk.

. . .

Paul Otlet  (23 August 1868  – 10 December 1944)

Paul Otlet – Marc Wathieu -Flickr Commons [CC BY-NC 2.0]

Paul Otlet – Marc Wathieu -Flickr Commons [CC BY-NC 2.0]

Belgian bibliographer, lawyer and entrepreneur Paul Marie Ghislain Otlet, was another figure said to be the ‘father of information science’, and ‘father of the internet’. Born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1868, he trained as a lawyer, completing his law degree at the Free University of Brussels in 1890. That same year whilst working as an intern at the offices of Edmond Picard, he met  fellow lawyer Henri La Fontaine, who shared Otlet’s interest in bibliography.

Otlet and La Fontaine soon became good friends and in 1892 they formed the International Institute of Social Bibliography and began a bibliographic survey of sociological literature that would last the next three years. In 1895 they established the Institut International de Bibliographie and turned their focus to the cataloging of  published information across all subjects. Together they created their Universal Bibliography, a card catalog comprising over 400,000 entries recorded on index cards, each assigned a class number, initially based on the Dewey Decimal Classification and later his own UDC.

"Indexation des publications et rédaction des fiches bibliographiques” By Mundaneum

“Indexation des publications et rédaction des fiches bibliographiques” By Mundaneum

Otlet and La Fontaine initially decided to use a translated version of the Dewey Decimal Classification, with the agreement of Melvil Dewey, in the process they developed and adapted it to their needs, creating a classification scheme they named Universal Decimal Classification. Like Dewey UDC divided all knowledge into 10 main categories, that could further be subdivided into any number of subcategories. Where the two diverged was in the separation of numbers, while Dewey used the decimal point from which it took its name, the UDC used a range of notations, such as the plus and equals signs, the colon and parentheses to allow a much expanded range of relationships between concepts.

They published the first complete edition of the UDC in 1905 in form of the Manuel du Répertoire Bibliographique Universel (Handbook of the Universal Bibliographic Repertory) a 2000+ page containing elaborate and extensive subject arrays illustrated by extended classification tables, auxiliary tables and a guide to the scheme’s use in creating catalogs and indexes. The arrival of the First World War forced Otlet and La Fontaine into exile, with the former travelling to the Netherlands, Switzerland, and finally to France. Meanwhile La Fontaine journeyed to London and then the United States. Both were committed to peace as reflected in their writings with Otlet penning his Traité de paix générale (Treatise on General Peace, 1914) and Les problèmes internationaux de la guerre (International Problems of War, 916) whilst La Fontaine published his The Great Solution: Magnissima Charta (1916) in the United States where he was involved in the Pacifist Movement.

La classification Décimale Universelle – Indices composés détaillant l’analyse classificatrice.

La classification Décimale Universelle – Indices composés détaillant l’analyse classificatrice.

In 1910 having been to the universal exposition in Belgium, Otlet conceived the idea for the Palais Mondial or World Palace, which would act as an international centre for knowledge and peace. At its centre would be the Mundaneum, a universal network of all the world’s knowledge and containing his universal bibliography. In what has been described as an ‘analog internet’, Otlet envisioned network of “electric telescopes”, dubbed ‘resau’, connected to the Mundaneum, through which users could request documents from the great libraries, that would be would be projected into a telegraph room. Following the end of the War, the Begian Government, proving receptive to the idea, provided Otlet and La Fontaine, space in the left wing of the Palais du Cinquantenaire, a government building in Brussels, opening 1921. The following year it was shut briefly, due to lack of support from the government,  but was reopened again after lobbying from Otlet and La Fontaine. In 1924 Otlet renamed the Palais Mondial to Mundaneum and the Universal Bibliographic Repertory, continued to expand and take in all forms of document including letters, reports, newspaper articles, and images.

By 1934, the Belgian government had again lost interest in funding the Munadaneum and its offices where closed, despite the protest of Otlet. Whilst the collection remained in situ, but inaccessible, Otlet returned to his writing producing in 1934 Traité de documentation, still considered a key text in the sphere of Documentation. The following year he published Monde:Essai d’universalisme (1935), which described his vision for a worldwide information network, that foreshadowed the internet. In 1940, Germany invaded Belgium and the Palais du Cinquantenaire was taken over to house a collection of artwork of the Third Reich, destroying much of the Mundaneum in the process. Otlet salvaged the remains and moved them to Parc Léopold, the dilapidated building in which the collection remain until it’s rediscovery by a young research name Boyd Rayward, in 1968.

Otlet died in December 1944, however the Mundaneum continues today as a private museum and archives center, with a mission to conserve, preserve and showcase within its space of temporary exhibitions, archives and collections bequeathed by its founders : nearly 6 km current documents and 12 million index cards of Universal Bibliographic Repertory!

In many of his ideas Otlet was ahead of his time, the semantic relationships that UDC allows have been compared by many to the RDF-Triples data model that underlies the semantic web. His thoughts on a network of information centres and the transmission of documents predicted the Internet several decades before Tim Berners-Lee would first propose his vision of hypertext.

Further reading:

Boyd Rayward(1981) The Evolution of an International Library and Bibliographic Community- The Journal of Library History  Vol. 16, No. 2, Libraries &Culture II (Spring, 1981)

Rayward’s Otlet Page: Paul Otlet and Documentation

Manfroid, S., Gillen, J. & Phillips-Batoma, P.M. (2013) The Archives of Paul Otlet: Between Appreciation and Rediscovery, 1944–2013, Library Trends, vol. 62, no. 2, pp. 311-328.

Otlet, P. (1934) Traité de documentation: le livre sur le livre, théorie et pratique

Wright, A. The Web Time Forgot

Wright, A., (2014) Cataloging the world: Paul Otlet and the birth of the information age, Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Cataloging the World by Alex Wright [Video]

. . .

Claude Shannon (30 April 1916 – 24 February 2001)

Claude Shannon by Konrad Jacobs CC BY-SA 2.0

Claude Shannon by Konrad Jacobs CC BY-SA 2.0

Widely regarded as the ‘Father of the Information Age‘ Claude Elwood Shannon was born in Petoskey, Michigan. After obtaining bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics and Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan, Shannon began his graduate studies in electrical engineering at MIT in 1936.  His familiarity with Boolean Algebra allowed him to design electrical switching circuits based on Boolean Logic. His master’s thesis, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, was described by Howard Gardner as “possibly the most important master’s theses ever written”, whilst other have called it “the Magna Carta of the information age.”

It was Shannon he who first established that data could be measured in “bits” (a term derived from the contraction of binary and digit) in his 1948 paper A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” In 1941, Shannon, having obtained A PhD in Mathematics was recruited by Bell Labs, where he worked on cryptography. He continued to work on Information Theory during this time, realizing that the encoding of messages in cryptography could be applied on a theoretical level to communication in general. The general premise of his theory was that: “a message’s information is proportional to its improbability–or its capacity to surprise an observer.

Whilst at Bell Labs, he would work closely with Alan Turing, who had been seconded to Washington in 1943, to aid the allies efforts in decryption. In 1949, his previously classified paper “A Mathematical Theory of Cryptography” was published in the Bell Labs Research Journal. Shannon’s landmark theory stated that all communications could be though of as the same regardless of the medium. Noise poses a risk to all messages regardless of the channel and so Shannon declared that the key to ensuring accurate delivery of any message was the information contained in the message, rather than the meaning of the message itself.

Shannon stated that all communication systems can be broken down into the same essential components, information source, source, transmitter, channel, noise source receiver and destination. From there he was able to determine that the encoding of message by the transmitter was the key to ensuring the accuracy of the message and the avoidance of noise.

Shannon’s Schematic diagram of a general communication system – Wikimedia commons

Shannon’s Schematic diagram of a general communication system – Wikimedia commons

Building on the premise of information as a measure of “surprise, or the amount of uncertainty we can overcome” he used the example of a coin toss to illustrate his point. Asserting that a fair coin toss, with equal chance of landing on either side, head or tails contains one bit of information. Shannon argued that the messages we send are like weighted coin tosses, they aren’t merely a random assemblage of characters but follow implicit rules that make them more predictable. Using this knowledge exemplified by the rule that certain characters are usually followed by others for example the letter “Q” is most commonly followed by a “U” or an “E”, he was able to show that the value of English (he called it H value) characters could be less than 1 bit. He expressed this in the following equation:


In 1956 he joined MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics  and served as faculty until 1978. Outside of work Shannon dabbled in robotics and computing, he invented a juggling robot, a flame-throwing trumpet, an electronic maze-solving mouse called Theseus, and a roman numeral arithmetic machine called THROBAC I Thrifty Roman Numeral Backward-Looking Computer. One of his most interesting devices was the “Ultimate Machine” a featureless box, with a single switch  on the front, when the switch was flipped the lid of the box would open and a mechanical hand reached out, flipped off the switch, then retracted back inside the box.

In 1973,the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers bestowed him the first ever Shannon Award. In later life Shannon was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and spent his last years in a nursing home. He died in 2001. His legacy lives on in his Information theory and work which formed the basis of modern computing, the internet and everything that followed.

Further reading: Soni, J. (2017) A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, Simon & Schuster

Claude Shannon, the Father of the Information Age, Turns 1100100

10,000 Hours With Claude Shannon: How A Genius Thinks, Works, and Lives

Profile of Claude Shannon, Inventor of Information Theory Scientific American


About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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1 Response to #CityLIS Student Perspectives: A who’s who of Library and Information Science by Thomas Ash

  1. Thomas Ash says:

    Thanks James, I had considered adding Michael Buckland, and maybe Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I hadn’t though of Ada Lovelace though good thinking. – Tom

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