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Computers in Swedish Society: Documenting Early Use and Trends by Per Lundin (review)
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Reviewed by
Per Lundin, Computers in Swedish Society: Documenting Early Use and Trends Springer, 2012, 145 pp.

Swedish scholars have been some of the most productive and innovative in their examination of their nation’s history of computing. Over the past decade, research on the history of computing in Sweden has shifted from exploring the role of inventors and technologies to the role of users and their institutions. In the process, a number of new techniques were developed that proved highly successful in generating new bodies of historical evidence and insights on computing. Per Lundin’s book describes a major collaborative oral history project that involved historians, institutions, and IT participants, resulting in the collection of some 700 personal stories about the use of computing, largely in the [End Page 5] period between 1950s and 1970s, as well as the collection of many documents and other ephemera. But this slim volume’s greatest value to historians and others interested in preserving the history of computing by way of oral histories is likely its extensive discussion about the techniques available today to do oral histories.

Per Lundin does a great service in describing various oral history projects from around the world, including those done on the history of information technologies, their strengths and weaknesses, and the effects they have on the collection and value of recollections, institutional histories, and the collection of ephemera. It is a learned discussion, with Chapter 1 focusing on the role of oral histories in the work of historians and their historiography. His discussion is comprehensive and clearly articulated. Lundin argues in favor of using oral history methods to enhance the supply of evidence historians can use, particularly of both elite users (people running organizations and projects, for example) and others who worked in firms and government agencies using computing.

The Swedish project was complicated, involving facilitators, historians, participant recruitment, and documentation. He devotes a lengthy chapter to its history at such a level of detail that this book could almost serve as a project guide if someone wanted to launch a similar national initiative. Lundin’s description is important because it illustrates that this kind of historical research is complicated and expensive. He also describes the techniques used by other organizations for comparative purposes.

A third chapter provides an analysis of how the evidence collected could be interpreted, such as in understanding the role of users of computing, the physical setting of where computing was used, and perhaps most interesting, how users shared information and networked both when they were computer users and later as they participated in this history project. He ends the book with a lengthy collection of appendices related to the Swedish project.

Lundin makes several observations. He argues that large oral history projects are possible to conduct, but because of their complexity and substantial number of participants, formal project management methods are necessary. Additionally, oral evidence can make considerable contributions to the history of computing, in part because these interviews and meetings flush out information not normally documented in paper records. He believes oral evidence can facilitate our understanding of large transformations in a technology, economy, industry, and nation and provides evidence in support of that contention.

Lundin provides one of the few extensive discussions available about identifying a ‘‘user’’ of computing. It turns out that the answer is not always clear, as some relied on IT to do their work, others invented and used computing, some managed organizations and projects that relied on computing, while still others affected its development and deployment. Because historians are increasingly studying the role of users of computing, it is a worthy exercise to pause and think through who the protagonists of the story were and how best to understand them. Lundin’s argument for the use of oral history to get at their knowledge of all manner of IT issues is situated in understanding who these people were, set within the context of their work.

The book is of considerable value to any historian interested in contemporary methods of conducting oral history projects, independent of whether those projects are about computing. Second, because of the level of detail provided about the Swedish...