DREaM event 3: Techniques from history
Dr Thomas Haigh from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee presented a workshop session discussing techniques from history on 30th January 2012 at the second DREaM workshop.
Dr Haigh provided a preview of this session in a short interview.
You can also view this presentation on Slideshare.
You can also view this document on Slideshare.
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Dr Thomas Haigh began by outlining his own background, which includes a primary disciplinary identity as a historian, but has involved studying a number of areas examining the history and use of information technology in work and institutions.
He suggested that the best definition of history that we have is that history is the study of things that change over time. However, he emphasised that we should also think about the things that don’t change, as what endures takes an enormous amount of work to remain static. He explained how as humans we understand everything through stories, including our own lives. This is called sense-making. The individual stories are bound up with the bigger stories of history. This means that part of the value of history is as a way of understanding everything.
Haigh gave a brief overview of the field of history and the conventions that exist which inform the way research in this area is carried out, including the practices of archival and oral history. He observed that history is not like social science: historians try to create a narrative that flows, rather than having all the “workings out” (such as the methodology, literature review etc) on the outside. He gave examples of the type of questions historians may seek to study that are relevant to library and information science. These included questions related to the history of faceted classification concept, the role of libraries within working class mechanics institutes, and the changing depictions of libraries in popular culture.
Haigh observed that there is currently a fragmentation of historical work between history of information science, library history, communications history, history of the book, and the history of computing/IT. However, an “information history” could bring these ideas together. He drew on lessons from other fields to describe how this may develop from pioneers with an avocational historical interest writing for those within the community, to history researchers writing for a wider audience. This shift will bring with it a shift in perspectives from internalism to externalism.
He moved on to discuss the history of users and use, as opposed to the history of the inventors and producers of technology. Technologies are often not used as their inventors expected, but within the history of information science people tend to be concerned with the ideas and breakthroughs, rather than how these developments have been used in practice.
To bring all of these elements together in a way that could apply to research that is not primarily historical, Haigh outlined Hartel’s key propositions, which state that history has long been marginal within information science, but information science is taking a social and cultural turn and therefore there has been a “recent breakthrough” of history into the mainstream of information science research. He concluded by proposing some open questions to the group based on these propositions, including questions relating to the iSchool movement.
Dr Haigh set the workshop task, which challenged participants to find three or four others, identify one who is actively engaged in a research project that could make use of an historical approach and suggest possible sources that might support this research.
Having reviewed the responses, Haigh observed that many of the titles suggested seemed too broad to be “do-able”. However, he noted that this may be because social science titles tend to be broader and followed by a more specific subtitle, whilst in history the titles would be much more specific and usually include a date range. He focussed particularly on the title suggested by one of the online participants, who completed the task using a shared Google document. He used this to illustrate how a very broad title could lead to a number of very different studies from a historical perspective. The challenge is to tell a representative story and find appropriate sources to support that.
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