- Revisiting "Shaping Information History as an Intellectual Discipline"
The articles reprinted in this issue of I&C represent more than an occasion to look back on accomplishments or even to celebrate them. Instead, they give us an opportunity to think about the future of our emerging field of information history. The past decade has been a busy one. I&C has published well over a hundred articles, and Library & Information History nearly a similar number. Every year, books have appeared that we would collectively consider to be about information history. Yet we are strangely at a similar spot as when we all wrote the articles reprinted in this issue of I&C. While we spend less time debating the definition of information history, we still have to describe its features and role in society, business, professions, and other human endeavors. We still are shaping its contours, defining its coda, and shaping its themes. The very good news is that there are more scholars engaged in this enterprise.
New circumstances have drawn attention to the subject, none more so than the notions of "fake news," "alternative facts," and "misinformation," beginning with the American presidential campaign in 2016. Citizens in the United States and in Europe and Asia were surprised, sometimes horrified, that leading political figures and candidates did more than mislead or exaggerate, they "lied," uttered falsehoods. The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, and Factcheck.org began inventorying presidential "lies" and posting corrections. Historians familiar with the long history of information smile, knowing this is not a new story. The pamphlet wars in seventeenth-century English politics, every American presidential election since 1800, and the times of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin in the 1930s are touch points to that truth. But the public reacts as if today's events are new. Historians and scholars in the humanities and social sciences have much work to do, however, to explain long-term patterns of "fake facts" to our colleagues and the public. I would argue that doing this is [End Page 95] part of a larger agenda for historians of information: to identify features of information in its various historic manifestations. It seemed all so simple nearly a decade ago: facts were facts, data were data, and truth was something for the philosophers or the police to worry about. Not anymore. If we thought our work was particular, even arcane and of limited interest, that changed. Once again, as I had suggested in the reprinted article, current realities make our work critical. Nearly two decades ago it was the lack of adequate sharing of information facilitating the tragedy of 9/11 that made our work urgent. Today it is, in addition, the manipulation of information challenging the credibility of entire political systems.
Origins of the Article
My article started as a conversation with the editor of I&C at the time, Bill Aspray. We were kibitzing a bit about how historians of information history were behaving much like the pioneering historians of computing twenty years earlier. There were some productive scholars, most just starting out, and too many people wandering around intellectually without sufficient focus or discipline. We wondered if historians of information would wander around in the same sort of wilderness for a decade or two. In time, the computer historians began to shape their categories of work, such as studying machines, software, companies and other organizations, and biographies of leading lights. But that had not happened yet with information history. One of the events in computer history that helped were presentations and articles by a technology historian at Princeton, Michael Mahoney. Bill asked me what I would do to address the problem, and having done strategy work inside IBM and with over a dozen of its customers, without thinking I started rattling off about the lack of focus, what general questions historians should be exploring, how to go about doing that, and so forth. He listened quietly, and after I had finished pontificating, he suggested that I write an article laying all this out. He had trapped me, like a good editor, into a corner; I had no way...