Friday, May 15, 2009

Review of Information History—An Introduction: Exploring an Emergent Field

Information History—An Introduction: Exploring an Emergent Field

My review of Information History—An Introduction: Exploring an Emergent Field by Toni Weller. (Oxford: Chandos, 2008).
Published in Journal of Documentation, 65(5), 2009.

Information History—An Introduction: Exploring an Emergent Field investigates how the values of our contemporary information society have guided scholars to examine our data sensemaking throughout history. Emergent is a key word, as the field has only begun to formulate itself. Author Toni Weller, associate lecturer and honorary fellow at City University, London, creates a historiography, exploring how different schools of thought have investigated the social, technological, economic, and cultural constructs of information. Using an interdisciplinary approach of historical and information science research, the book is aimed at undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals in History and Information Science.

The first chapter introduces the concept of information history, tracing its development and the current dominance of British, Nordic, and North American scholarship. Weller writes, “Information history is the study of information in past societies—how it was understood, used, organised, managed, collected, censored, feared, revered, published, disseminated, presented, displayed ... [It is] strongly related to the disciplines of library and information science, which emphasise the role of information in contemporary society and from which the first movements of the field of information history emerged” (4). Although a fledgling field, information history has validity as an area of study.

Information professionals will be interested in reading about the significance of information history in their vocations in the second chapter. Weller writes, “Although information history is academically attractive as a field of historical, sociological or philosophical enquiry, it must also be shown to be relevant to students and funding bodies in a climate that often emphasises and values the skills and ‘usefulness’ of degree content” (50). Universities must respond to the marketplace by teaching “economically valuable skills,” as the Leitch Review of Skills (2006), a study of the UK’s optimal skills mix for 2020, recommended (30). These competencies include retrieving and filtering information, judging provenance, organizing and analyzing content, and evaluating information design and presentation. She writes, “Not only could the profession itself, and those working within it, benefit from having a more holistic sense of its own development and history, but also such an understanding could affect in a very real and positive sense the way in which information professions contribute to the debate and policy of the contemporary world of information” (47-8).

Key schools of thought in current scholarship are discussed in the third chapter, the highlight of the book. Library and book history, one of the oldest academic traditions of the five discussed, is the area where the first movements of information history materialized. Information systems and infrastructure history has an overly technological interest in history. Much has been written about the cultural impact of the telegraph, what science and technology journalist Tom Standage termed the “Victorian Internet.” Some scholars believe information systems appeared as recently as the 1990s with the popularization of the Internet. Others, such as Daniel Headrick, Professor Emeritus of Social Science and History, Roosevelt University, Illinois, argue that it emerged in the Age of Reason with the communication, display, and storage of information through maps, dictionaries, and graphs. History of the information discipline is the practical history of how information is used, understood, and developed in social and professional capacities, as the disciplines matured and created bodies of professional literature. It explores the work of those in libraries, museums, and archives, with growing interest in female information pioneers. Social and cultural explorations of information considers how information affects and is affected by human society and culture. Weller notes, “While exploring the infrastructures of information and the history of information technologies and disciplines is important and necessary, we must not become blinded by technology and forget that these aspects of information are all essentially part of humanity and its development” (73). The origins of information society concentrates on fundamental characteristics of the modern information society, with specific focus on its economic origins. For example, in 1870, English, French, and German news agencies Reuters, Havas, and Wolff agreed to pay today’s equivalent of £15,000 pounds per month for telegraphed information—an astonishing amount that points to information’s value.

The fourth chapter reviews the practice of information history. Essential questions to shape study are “How can we look for information in the past?” and “How do we avoid imposing modern understandings of information on past societies?” Since information history allows interdisciplinary approaches, professors can adapt its study to their expertise. The field will mature through teaching, and Weller offers several exercises for class discussion.

The final chapter forecasts the next ten years of scholarship, understanding that only in the last decade of the 20th century did information history begin to be theorized and conceptualized. The future will see more scholarship on information history from regions beyond the Western world. Assisting the next generation of information discourse, new topics of study, and issues of the information age that have not yet surfaced will also be studied.

Information History—An Introduction: Exploring an Emergent Field
is an accessible overview of information history. The book is an amuse-bouche; it provides just enough satisfaction, but leaves the readers craving more. Scholars will be interested in exploring the references section, which includes many contributions from Alistair Black, Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, formerly of Leeds Metropolitan University, a vocal advocate of information history as a theorized field of study. It is surprising that the field has only recently developed, and this book is the first solely dedicated to its historiography. Here’s hoping for many more.

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