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  • Enhancing the Cultural Record:Recent Trends and Issues in the History of Information Science and Technology
  • Robert V. Williams (bio)

Even though they are, at least intellectually, "first cousins," writers on the history of libraries and writers on the history of information science and technology (IST) seldom "speak" to each other, only rarely attend the same "family reunions," and minimally keep in touch. This is unfortunate, since they share many of the same larger historical concerns, particularly about the role of information in shaping culture and cultural institutions. This essay attempts to reduce some of the intellectual distance that exists between these various perspectives in three ways: by review of recent trends in research and writing, by indications of topics of current interest to some of the most active researchers, and by identification of issues that need to be explored in future research. The purpose is to attract researchers from all branches of the "family" to fill in gaps and explore new ground.

For the purposes of this essay, in the discussion of the literature that follows IST history is defined broadly to include items dealing with the social, cultural, economic, psychological, and technological aspects of information institutions, with the transmission and use of information, and with the effects of information on social systems. This definition is rapidly being extended to include digital culture studies, memory studies, and the effects of literacy and information on early modern societies. In general, from the categories of works considered I have excluded studies dealing narrowly with the history of computing/computer science and telecommunications. However, as is evident from the works cited in this essay, historical work in these two fields is rapidly merging with the history of IST.

Unlike the history of libraries, which has a large group of active researchers and writers, the history of IST has attracted a much smaller group, scattered across a number of different though related fields. [End Page 326] Working in discrete disciplines as they do, these workers interact infrequently. Growing interest in exploring the background of and trends in the development of the so-called Information Age is, however, rapidly increasing their numbers.

Trends in IST History

Like all relatively new fields, particularly those with a strong orientation toward new technologies, IST has had its amateur historians and chroniclers of developments. As might be expected, they have emphasized descriptions of the development of specific innovations, systems, leading organizations, companies, or government agencies in the field as well as the work of individual pioneers. IST history includes a respectable number of such descriptive studies, though one certainly cannot characterize them all as systematic in coverage or as being written with a scholarly orientation. Four noteworthy examples are histories of Nuclear Science Abstracts (1972) and Biological Abstracts (1976); Frank B. Rogers's history of early automation work at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) (1963); and the proceedings of the 1987 NLM conference on medical informatics.1 (Because early historically oriented studies are so scattered I have attempted to cite as many as I can find in an online bibliography.)2

The Late 1960s to 1995

Scholarly attention to the history of IST began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the work of a few individual researchers, some of whom had done earlier work in library history. Foremost among these is W. Boyd Rayward, with his work on Paul Otlet, the International Institute for Bibliography (IIB), the International Federation for Documentation (FID), and the development of the European documentation movement. Rayward soon followed this work with his study of the Dewey Decimal Classification system and the origins of library and information science.3

In the early 1980s Pamela Richards began her work on the history of scientific information during World War II with a focus on its collection and use and on the efforts of government agencies to control it through secrecy and espionage.4 Her research continued through the 1990s but was tragically cut short by her untimely death in 2000.

In 1983 Martha Jane Zachert and I published our work on the special libraries movement in the United States (which we would later compare with European documentation) and the Special Libraries Association (SLA...


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