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  • The History of Information Science and Other Traditional Information Domains:Models for Future Research
  • William Aspray (bio)

It has been said that the historian is the avenger, and that standing as a judge between the parties and rivalries and causes of bygone generations he can lift up the fallen and beat down the proud, and by his exposures and his verdicts, his satire and his moral indignation, can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent.

—Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)

Historians of the traditional information domains—libraries, archives, and museums as well as conservation and information science—could be more effective in punishing unrighteousness, avenging the injured, and rewarding the innocent if they had better tools. This article aims to help them develop these tools not by honing their satirical abilities or teaching them how to become more at one with their moral outrage but instead by drawing their attention to several scholarly literatures that offer insights into information history: the history of information technology, social informatics, and business and economic history of technology. I identify nine themes from these literatures that seem ripe for exploration in the history of information science but first examine the boundaries between information science and various other information domains.

This article benefits from two recently published literature reviews that provide good overviews of the existing literature on the histories of information science and technology.1 However, these reviews were retrospective works meant to review existing literature; the goal here is prospective, to suggest avenues for future research. [End Page 230]

Defining Boundaries

The traditional information domains, which represent the purview of Libraries & the Cultural Record, constitute a coherent but less than comprehensive set of the information domains. Outside these traditional domains stand academic disciplines such as information technology, computer science, computer engineering, operations research, and management information science. By examining the histories of these other academic disciplines, we are likely to find models of scholarship that can be applied effectively to information science.

The traditional focus also misses a number of real-world information businesses such as computer hardware and software, office equipment, publishing, consulting, and insurance, whose histories also are worthy of examination. Figure 1, taken from John McLaughlin and Anne Berenyi's 1980 report Mapping the Information Business, offers an expansive view of the information businesses.2 Points on the chart represent individual information industries. If the point is positioned farther to the right, the business is more content-oriented; if farther to the left, the mission is more about providing an information conduit than about content. If the point is positioned closer to the bottom, the business is product-oriented; if closer to the top, service-oriented. The chart displays a wide range of information industries. The traditional information domains tend to appear toward the right (content-oriented products and services), even though they may rely on other information businesses that appear farther to the left, such as file cabinets (lower left) or mail services (upper left), to carry out their operations.

I do not attempt here to define what information science is. Most of the definitions of information science in the literature suffer from problems of scope, creating disagreements among practitioners as to whether a given definition is too inclusive in some respect or not inclusive enough in another. This ambiguity raises a question for the historian about the boundaries of this field whose history she is writing. A more vexing problem for the historian, however, is that these definitions generally suffer from a problem of time-fixedness. Many of these definitional efforts have as their goal to identify the current territory of information science, with little historical sensitivity to the fact that what constitutes information science changes over time. If one fixes on a particular bounded set of knowledge and practice as defining information science, it is all too easy for the historian to present a (triumphant) account of a path that led inexorably to the current state of understanding, tossing aside as unimportant other paths that diverged [End Page 231] from the one that led directly to today's information science. The problems with this kind of teleological or Whiggish approach to history...


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