History, Information Science, and Technology: An Introduction
Lawrence J. McCrank, May 1999
The name change of this column from "Computers and Software" to "History, Information Science, and Technology" is a deliberate broadening of its scope to relate history to both modern information science and information technology, or more accurately, information sciences (for example, computer, information, archival, museum, and library science) and technologies (such as computers, peripherals, networks, and telecommunications). This is a more encompassing and integrative concept than the focus on hardware and software alone, which can incorporate engineering, design and development, and other activities related uses, functions, operations, etc., such as human-machine or graphic user interfaces, artificial intelligence and decision support systems, modeling and simulations, geographic information systems and remote sensing, knowledge engineering, computer-assisted design (CAD), computer-assisted teaching/learning (CAT/CAL), and certain aspects of robotics and manufacturing such as stereolithogram applications in museums and education.
It also focuses attention on the integration of theory, method, technique, and technology, and their customization for areas of historical specialization or subject domains, modes of inquiry and discourse, content and context. The acronym HIST might also stand for Historical Information Science and Technology, referring specifically to Information Science applied to historical information and its creation, transfer, change in impact, interpretation, and meaning over time and space; and to the technology involved in information production, dissemination, preservation, storage and retrieval, and regeneration. This is an idea that I will develop further in a subsequent article in this column. Of particular interest would be the systems, operations, metadata, and standards that circumscribe historical information and make its retrieval possible, whether in traditional technologies like writing, publishing, and products like the book, or in the more recent evolution of computer systems, networks, legacy computing, and data warehousing.
The column invites discussion of projects as case studies illustrating larger concerns and issues than the specific work or applications in the project itself, or as examples of operations design, project management, and standards development, from which one can extrapolate lessons for other projects and studies. It invites product reviews, but set into the context of an overall development, trend, or process. And it invites discussions of the entwined processes of historical information dissemination and technological diffusion. The keywords "computer" and "software" used in the column before are important still, but must be seen increasingly as generic terms now incorporating an array of technologies, interchangeable parts, and interoperability, as in acknowledging the many "wares" of modern technology—hard, soft, firm, shareware, etc. It is not enough to focus on a specific piece of technology alone, since all are so transitory, but it is important to relate a specific case to the general type, the instance to the process, and a particular example to the generalization.
Significant issues might be probed. What has graphic presentation of data a la Edward Tufte, for example, to do with the rapidly developing technologies of computer visualization? What is the significance of electronic records and virtual libraries for history and the meaning of evidence? What methodological competencies should be mastered as part of the historian's repertoire or which technical skills should form the essential historian's toolkit?
Most of all, research methods and operations must be explicit, identifiable, and central to the argument. Contributions to this column must relate history to information processes and technologies, both the history of something, someone, or someplace, and history in these entities that gives them character and identity.
Therefore, it is as important to relate new technologies, techniques, and methods to history as is commonly done, but also—far more rare—to relate historical information, reasoning, and reconstruction to the design of information systems, services, products, and techniques under whatever guise—belief systems, time and event analysis, longitudinal research, or retrospective searching. If, for example, history is a way of looking at things and sense-making, it constitutes a form of intelligence; in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), should there not be the development of an AI historical specialty? Can one point to such in fuzzy systems research, applications of chaos theory in data modeling, and decision support systems used already in database development for identification based on probabilities, nominal linkage, linguistics, and the handling of imperfect data?
It is hoped that the column increases awareness, stimulates imagination, and engages historians in developing technology for history and applying history to technical development and especially computer techniques and capabilities. Please contribute, read, and discuss. That is the purpose of this forum.