restricted access History Hunting: A Guide for Fellow Adventurers by James W. Cortada (review)
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Reviewed by
James W. Cortada, History Hunting: A Guide for Fellow Adventurers, M.E. Sharpe, 2012.

History Hunting: A Guide for Fellow Adventurers is partially a memoir of Cortada’s life as a historian, partially a how-to book, and partially a statement of what Cortada believes are the proper roles of history and historians. As an amateur historian of computing, I think the book is wonderful. It is fun and easy to read. It is educational. It is inspirational.

The book has a brief preface, 10 chapters, and an index. Each chapter is divided into two parts. In the first part Cortada tells stories relating to the chapter’s theme, ending with a lessons learned subsection. The second part of each chapter is called “Getting [End Page 8] Started” and includes how-to suggestions and pointers to other resources. In each chapter, Cortada addresses the chapter’s topic and then touches on topics beyond the nominal subject of the chapter. Finally, he pulls the various threads of the chapter together in a useful way.

All 10 chapters are interesting, but four seem particularly relevant to Annals readers. Chapter 1 (In the Beginning) describes how Cortada got started in doing history and how the reader might get started. Chapter 3 (Studying the Age of Information) is about Cortada researching and publishing on the history of computer companies and about the special problems of researching history where the information is in corporate libraries, in company brochures, on electronic media, and so forth. Chapter 5 (Big-Game Hunting) sketches the importance of taking on history projects that take many workers to accomplish. Chapter 7 (Researcher as Archivist) emphasizes collecting, organizing, letting others know about, and ultimately finding a follow-on home for research materials. Throughout the book, Cortada is complimentary to librarians, archivists, used bookstore owners, and other such people who so often help historians.

Cortada is likely aiming this book at a spectrum of people, but it has particular relevance for people like me who have had a career in the non-academic-computing-history world and now are interested in researching history and recounting what they learn. I also suspect History Hunting would be an outstanding book to assign to graduate and undergraduate history students who have not yet decided between pursuing an academic career or finding some other way to do history while following a less prescribed career path.

Additionally, Cortada’s book tells stories about people and institutions well known in the computing history world, such as at the Charles Babbage Institute and in the realm of the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing and its readers. This allowed me to think, ‘‘Cortada is one of us,’’ thus making his book seem even more relevant.

As I said earlier, the book is inspirational. Cortada allows one to dream about ways to contribute to the history of computing and gives guidance for how to actually accomplish useful history work. Partly this is because Cortada—while a highly trained, productive, and professionally well-regarded historian—is technically an amateur. He has made his living working for IBM, mostly in the company’s sales organization. Thus, from his example, I can imagine what great history work I might have done if I was only (a lot) better organized. Cortada also suggests many specific techniques and resources I could use and thus be a more productive historian. In addition, Cortada is making a case for all kinds of people being involved in doing history and the work of history not being only the province of professional historians. For all these reasons, History Hunting has led me to reflect on what amateur historians can do to contribute more to the history of computing.

More of us should write our own memoirs about the historical computing activities in which we participated—memoirs such as Severo Ornstein’s wonderful book Computing in the Middle Ages: A View From the Trenches 1955–1983,1 for example. If we can’t produce a complete book, we should at least post a shorter memoir on the Web, such as one of the ‘‘First-Hand Histories’’ at the IEEE Global History Network (