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  • Preserving Records of the Past, Today
  • James W. Cortada

Scholars examining the history of information technology run into many practical, nuts-and-bolts problems more frequently than historians in other fields that have existed for considerable periods of time, such as diplomatic and political national history. Problems with the history of information technology center on the paucity of the tools historians rely on to do their work. This paucity includes insufficient finding aids to archival collections and too few reference guides, bibliographies, and library collections adequately stocked with books and other publications. Of course, the 800-pound guerrillas we all want in our intellectual spaces are large collections of archival materials needed to underpin our work. When compared to so many other fields of history, we are long on demand and short on supply, mainly because our field is new. In time, all will be well in our part of history.

Still, we need to get from where we are today, a world lacking in what we need to practice our craft, to the one we desire. I suggest that we take a number of steps to help ourselves and those who will follow us in the history of IT. These steps will lie outside the role of an historian in fields well endowed with the tools of our trade, but they have been used during the early emergence of new subfields.

I propose that as part of our research and writing responsibilities that we add another: to help create the materials that we and future historians will need, even if we are not rewarded or recognized for doing so. Specifically, I think we should agree to contribute the following to the greater community of historians.

First, donate archival materials in whatever shape, form, or copy you acquire them to institutions of your choice so that future historians may consult them. The Charles Babbage Institute and I have done this; this is wonderful because so much of that material did not, indeed could not, go into what I have published so far for all the usual reasons. Such items can be original documents and ephemera, posters, magazine and newspaper articles, photocopies, or digital files. Just organize them in a way that would make sense to a historian before shipping them off to the library or archive of your choice, since an archivist might not know enough yet to have a perspective on how best to structure a collection.

Second, collect and preserve all ephemera on your subject that you come across with the intention of donating it to a library or archive. This is especially urgent with respect to computer books, pamphlets, newsletters, preprints, and so forth because libraries have frequently disposed of these kinds of materials, thinking they were outdated or irrelevant. At the moment, we are the only ones rescuing such materials, but we are all doing this subconsciously. Let’s do it as an overt, premeditated act of preservation, collecting what you need and other materials that you do not need but are related to the subject. Once you no longer require them, find them a home.

Berni Galler, a great computer scientist and the first editor of the Annals, gave me many of his publications because his university did not want “old computer books.” He recognized that he needed to get these materials into the hands of someone who would find them a home. So you do not necessarily have to give things to libraries; you can hand them down to the next generation if that makes more sense to you. The name of the game is to gather up materials before they disappear or become prohibitively expensive to acquire. And accept the responsibility of protecting materials that have been passed on to you, as I did for Professor Galler. This is part of our role as well.

Third, write and publish bibliographic and historiographical articles describing materials and your research strategies. Do this especially after completing a major research project, such as a book or dissertation. Let’s educate each other on what materials and research approaches exist and work. Martin Campbell-Kelly took the time to explain to historians how he researched his history...


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pp. 87-88
Launched on MUSE
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