DREaM event 3 speaker insight: Thomas Haigh

Thomas Haigh

Dr Thomas Haigh

In the last of our preview interviews leading up to next Monday’s DREaM workshop at the British Library, Dr Thomas Haigh gives us a detailed introduction to his session, in which he will help participants consider techniques from history.

In this interview, Haigh outlines his efforts to raise the profile of information history within the history of technology world and encourage a more interdisciplinary audience to engage with debate in the field. He also explains the value of historical thinking and how this can help LIS researchers think more deeply about the ways in which they conceptualize research problems.

Dr Haigh is an Associate Professor at the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

What research issues will you be discussing with the workshop participants in your presentation?

The session is about historical methods for research in library and information science. During the session we’ll begin by looking broadly at what history is and why people study it. Then we’ll look at the broad new concept of “information history” proposed in recent years as a way of bring together formerly separate specialties such as library history, history of information technology, and history of information science.

One important challenge is who undertakes historical research in information history and why – should it be confined to questions and audiences within the library and information science field (the “internalist” approach) or are the opportunities within information history to engage with topics and questions of interest to much broader communities of historical scholars. This leads to another challenge: how to integrate historical insights into LIS research projects conducted by non-historians.

How have these issues affected your own research?

My own career as a researcher focused on the history of information technology has made me very much aware of the issues of disciplinary identity and culture. I began in computer science, earning two degrees from the University of Manchester. For my Ph.D. I shifted to history, earning a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. For eight years I’ve worked in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. As a consultant or volunteer I’ve worked on historical issues with the Association for Computing Machinery, the IEEE Computer Society, the American Society for Information Science & Technology, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. Within the Society for the History of Technology I chair the Special Interest Group on Computers, Information and Society and have worked hard to bring an interdisciplinary audience to the group’s sessions and workshops as well as to raise the profile of information history within the history of technology world. So while my research is published mostly in journals and books aimed at specialist historical audiences I’ve been constantly challenged to explain historical perspectives to non-historians and promote the value of history to technical communities.

How do you think these issues might be relevant to LIS researchers?

Historical thinking helps us to look more critically and creatively at present day issues. One of the most important historical topics is the construction of identity. The information field has never had a stable identity, and incorporates concepts and assumptions derived from different disciplines. Yet it can also be rather insular. Its composition has evolved rapidly in response to a shifting technological and institutional landscape. History teaches us to look at where ideas come from, who promotes them, and how they reflect broader historical shifts. That will help researchers to think more deeply about the ways in which they conceptualize research problems and the unexamined historical assumptions buried in their work.

Much of the presentation will be spent discussing different historical approaches relevant to information researchers, such as intellectual history, social history, and institutional history. During a group exercise, participants will be asked identify a specific historical question relevant to their personal research and work in a small group to select a specific historical approach and set of possible sources to address this question.

Where can people find out more information?

All those interested in the history of information technology are encouraged to join SIGCIS (free of charge) and use its resources at http://www.sigcis.org. I surveyed the literature on the history of information technology and its questions recently in “History of Information Technology,” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 45 (2011): 431-487. Like most of my other writing, this is available in preprint form from http://www.tomandmaria.com/tom.

The case for information history more broadly was made by Alistair Black in Information history, Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 40, 2006, pp. 441-473.

Dr Thomas Haigh will be presenting a session titled: Techniques from history at the third DREaM workshop at the British Library on Monday 30th January. He will also present the workshop game in his session. For full details about the workshop, please see the workshop programme.


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