- Information History in the Modern World: Histories of the Information Age
For the past several years, in a series of articles and books (all cited in this volume), Toni Weller has been advocating for the term “information history” as the best name for the historical study of any issue that deals with the production, collection, use, and cultural and social significance of information. In her 2008 brief monograph, Information History—An Introduction (Oxford, Chandos), she provides her reasoning for this as the best and most appropriate term for what she considers a new field of study. In her view, this new term should replace such names as library history, history of archives, information technology history, history of information science, and any other historical area of study that has information as the main focus. It is a compelling argument, but not a completely convincing one, since the main descriptive phrases that help us quickly understand what is being studied are missing. Weller recognizes this paradox, noting that our overexposure to information, in everyday life as well as in the information-intensive work that we do as historical researchers, causes us to take it for granted. (p. 199)
This volume of ten essays is an excellent illustration of Weller’s argument for the need to consider the omnipresent role of information in societies. It begins with Weller’s own essay showing how in the modern age (here, beginning in about 1750) information has come to be recognized as a worthy study on its own merits and ends with her insistence that information history has distinctive contributions to make to the historiography of the modern world. In between, the essay authors provide fascinating details about a wide variety of historical stories where information takes center stage.
The individual essays cover topics that ordinarily are not considered from an information viewpoint: the early development of information systems containing personal information (Edward Higgs, “Personal Identification as Information Flows in England”); the way in which correspondence patterns between influential persons in the famous Republic of Letters actually developed (W. Boyd Rayward, “Information for the Public”); the growth of forms used to collect and process information about people, leading to extensive forms design innovations (Paul Stiff, Paul [End Page 1011]
Dobraszcyk, and Mike Ebester, “Designing and Gathering Information”); a comparison of the informational differences in the use of broadsides, ballads, and newspapers in Denmark in the early 19th century (Laura Skouvig, “Broadside Ballads, Almanacs and the Illustrated News”); the role of the Information and Intelligence Bureaux of the Imperial Institute in the formation of the British Empire in the 19th century (Dave Muddiman, “Information and Empire”); the nature and role of the often neglected in-house newsletter in corporate formation (Alistair Black, “‘A Valuable Handbook of Information’”); and, perhaps most unique in this volume, the role that information and communications (including “spirit” messages) played in the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army civil war in Uganda in the period 1986–2006 (Paul Sturges, “Modelling Recent Information History”). Many of these stories have been covered by other historians but not in the way they are told here. The authors of these essays allow us to see how information is created, why it is created, how it is managed, and the effects of the information on events, people, and societies. Information is the “lead actor” in all these essays.
Luke Tredinnick’s essay “Rewriting History: The Information Age and the Knowable Past” is a departure from the others. It does not tell a story of the role of information in some historical setting, but asks the question “does history any longer have meaning in the information age?” (p. 175) He notes that in the discourse of modern history “epistemological skepticism” challenges the received wisdom of historical research because it is predominantly a literary activity that re-writes the historical record. Thus, historical knowledge is made rather than discovered in the archives. The knowable past is difficult to recover. Traditional history uses the surviving records to write...