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About this book

Information has a rich but under explored history. The information age of the late twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a new history of information and, in this timely collection of essays, a team of international scholars from a variety of disciplines examines the changing understandings of information in the modern world.

Situating the concept of information in varying historical contexts since the eighteenth century, Information History in the Modern World: Histories of the Information Age:
• explores how this historical research can challenge our perceptions of the information age in the global twenty-first century
• discusses ephemera, wars, imagery, empire, identification and the transience of history in the digital era
• argues that the changing uses, perceptions and manifestations of information helped to shape the world we know today.

Authoritative and approachable, this is an invaluable resource for anyone who is interested in how and why information has become a distinguishing feature of the modern world.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Since the last decades of the twentieth century, information has become increasingly commonplace: an everyday commercial and cultural commodity, ubiquitous in our daily lives. The idea of information has taken on a new importance and value. Theorists such as Frank Webster, Manuel Castells, Anthony Giddens and Jürgen Habermas have discussed the notion of our contemporary world as an ‘information society’, as information has become recognized ‘as a distinguishing feature of the modern world’.1 The issues of the information age surround us in public debate, in political discourse and in cultural considerations: the ‘surveillance state’, personal privacy, information design, the collection of information, information access and information dissemination, amongst many other issues.
Toni Weller

2. Personal Identification as Information Flows in England, 1500–2000

The study of the social uses of information seems appropriate to the contemporary ‘Information Age’. However, as the contributions to this book reveal, the historical study of information is also important in helping the present to understand its past. This is certainly the case with respect to the history of the techniques and technologies used to identify people as particular individuals from the early-modern period onwards. Seeing the history of identification in terms of information flows might seem, at first, a little perverse. After all, identifying someone is surely a grasping of their essential being, rather than the provision of information? The former may be true when identifying a friend in a public place, or a loved-one in a morgue, but it is more difficult to see this process in action when one has to identify a stranger. Here it is necessary to have some sign, token, or information, which can be used to verify that the person is who they say they are. This is especially true when individuals are identifying not their bodies, but personalities that are social conventions — their legal persona, or their citizenship. Thus, signatures do not identify bodies but juridical persons, and have the force of law long after the body has ceased to exist. As will be argued here, identification in this more extensive sense has always involved information flows. There are also cases where individuals do not want to be identified and take considerable pains to prevent this, as with criminals and impostors. Even here one cannot rely on the direct identification of witnesses, as numerous cases of mistaken identity have revealed.1
Edward Higgs

3. Information for the Public: Information Infrastructure in the Republic of Letters

In this chapter I tell briefly the story of the overlapping lives of four men of the mid-seventeenth century: Théophraste Renaudot (1586–1653), Gabriel Naudé (1600–53), Samuel Hartlib (1600–62) and John Dury (1596–1680). Two were French and two English. Each of their lives has been touched on in the course of larger historical accounts related to social and religious history, the history of science and of scholarship more generally, the history of particular institutions such as the Royal Society, even, as in the case of Renaudot, the history of journalism and social welfare services and, in the case of Naudé, librarianship. I suggest that there is yet another important narrative which their lives might help to structure and enrich. It is relevant to those interested in the history of information, in the history of how societies, in times of violent and far-reaching social and political change, struggle to manage the information on which their security and identity to a large extent depend.
W. Boyd Rayward

4. Designing and Gathering Information: Perspectives on Nineteenth-Century Forms

In this chapter we introduce information design and the insights it offers into the use of some ubiquitous documents of everyday life.1 We then explore one document genre which in nineteenth-century Britain marked the growth of a national information-gathering economy: the administrative form, a medium for the conduct of dialogues and interrogations between regulators and citizens. We consider the design and use of early census schedules and tax forms, describing interactions of language, layout and handwritten responses. The result is a picture of people’s engagement with the state mediated through forms, and also of the demands made on their reading, writing and numerical skills.
Paul Stiff, Paul Dobraszczyk, Mike Esbester

5. Broadside Ballads, Almanacs and the Illustrated News: Genres and Rhetoric in the Communication of Information in Denmark 1800–1925

Information history has gained success as a unique perspective on past societies and cultures, although as Toni Weller has shown in her introduction to information history one currently finds a British dominance within the discipline.1 In Denmark, much information history research can be found within related areas such as library history, media history, history of technology and communication, or book history, for example.2 Book history offers, for instance, aspects on how information was distributed in the various written media of books and almanacs.3 The neighbouring and joint discipline of library history has a long and strong tradition mainly focusing on the construction period of the public library system in Denmark, from 1880 to 1920.4 The strong concentration on public library history has therefore in many respects led to scholars neglecting the research libraries, other kinds of libraries and more broadly library functions. In short, traditional library history in Denmark is a typical example of the focus on the library as an institution, and not on the library as a function. From my point of view, information history comprises the history of the library and reframes it by rethinking its history as a question of the library function of dispersing and distributing information, of gathering and preserving information in many other areas than just within the frames of the library. Libraries have to a large extent monopolized these functions — a position that library historians (including the author of this chapter) have reproduced when concentrating alone on public libraries.
Laura Skouvig

6. Information and Empire: The Information and Intelligence Bureaux of the Imperial Institute, London, 1887–1949

Empire — and its goals of control; exploitation; assimilation; ‘civilization’ — is perhaps inherently an informational project. Certainly, the expansion of European empires from 1600 onwards acted as a catalyst in the forging of the modern information age. By 1815, these empires had helped establish new methods of gathering, storing, transforming, displaying and communicating information: systems such as accurate maps; scientific classification; semaphore; and statistics.1 By the later nineteenth century — the high noon of European colonialism — mechanization and industrial technologies such as shallow-hulled steamboats and electric cable enabled a ‘death of distance’ which some see as the beginnings of the contemporary networked world.2 Meanwhile, in often subtle and sophisticated ways, colonized societies themselves developed new kinds of information order into which they assimilated, transformed and hybridized the project of informational and cultural dominance emanating from Europe.3 Conversely, metropolitan societies absorbed the experience of empire; often, it is true, distorting and rejecting knowledge of the ‘Other’; but ultimately, perhaps, enriching and enhancing their own institutions and national cultures.4
Dave Muddiman

7. ‘A Valuable Handbook of Information’: The Staff Magazine in the First Half of the Twentieth Century as a Means of Information Management

The glitz and glamour of the so-called ‘information society’ blinds us to the multitude of precursors of digital information and communication technology and culture. Partly in response to the historical blind spots created by information millenarianism, in recent years historians have highlighted a large number of the information society’s pre-computer roots and antecedents.1 Adding to this body of historical literature, this chapter examines the history of the humble in-house staff magazine in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century, especially in terms of its role as an ‘information glue’ in organizations that across all sectors of society and the economy during this period were becoming larger and more fragmented, thereby requiring new ways — ‘informational’ ways — of managing them. In this respect, the views of the editor of The Black Diamond, the staff magazine of the coal shipping company William Cory & Son, are worthy of note. In the first issue of the magazine, in 1925, he explained that the publication would not only carry articles that were light, humorous and of current interest but also act as a means whereby all members of the company ‘may acquaint themselves with the Company’s operations and trading’; it would be a magazine which, in due course, would ‘form a valuable handbook of information [author emphasis] relative to the Countries, Cities and Ports, in and around which the Company’s business is conducted’.2
Alistair Black

8. Modelling Recent Information History: The ‘Banditry’ of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda

The use of models is at least implicit in much modern historical scholarship. These can be economic history models capable of processing great volumes of statistics with predictive potential, or the more descriptive models that give form and shape to an essentially verbal structure of argument. This chapter will make use of, and assess, a model of the second type, designed to structure understanding of the role of information in civil conflict. An ongoing episode in the history of Uganda, the insurgency or banditry of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), 1986 and onwards, is the case under study. This may seem a strange choice of topic, but in fact it responds to a suggestion by Boyd Rayward that the history of the colonial wars of independence might prove interesting from an information-centred perspective.1 The author has responded to this suggestion2 and it is a small stretch to turn this towards post-colonial conflicts such as that in northern Uganda. An earlier version of the present chapter,3 used by kind permission of the editor and publishers of Information Development, did precisely that, but without the emphasis on the significance of the model that will be offered here. Part of the fascination of studying information seeking and use in the Acholi areas of northern Uganda, around the provincial capital of Gulu, is that it offers an information landscape of a bleakness that is in striking contrast to the lush natural environment of the area. Only the situation in failed states like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is likely to be worse.
Paul Sturges

9. Rewriting History: The Information Age and the Knowable Past

Does history any longer have meaning in the information age? Baudrillard has described history as ‘our lost referential, that is to say our myth’.1 History seems to slip away in the precession of simulacra accompanying mass media and digital computing: ever-present if inauthentic versions of the past overwhelm any sense of historical continuity. Arguably we live in an era of timeless time, or time without chronology in which the very patterns of our daily lives are disrupted.2 Some theorists suggest we have reached the end of history;3 others that real historical research is no longer either possible or desirable.4 In the ephemeral spaces of the information society, history apparently lacks purchase. As an emerging discipline, information history must take seriously the proposition that information itself possesses historical agency. It must develop ways of understanding the past that address both ‘information as a central theme’ and its ‘impact upon existing historical theses’.5 This chapter argues that structural transformations in the production and consumption of information accompanying the transition to the information society require us to rethink both the nature of history and our relationship with the past. They do so because of the tendency of mass media and digital computing to undermine the ontological stability that writing was assumed to possess in the modern age. A subtle complicity exists between writing and history. In unpicking that complicity we might uncover new kinds of previously marginalized historicity.
Luke Tredinnick

10. Conclusion: Information History in the Modern World

Information has a rich but currently under-explored history. The chapters of this book offer some new insights as to how information has been thought of, conceptualized and used in past societies. There is no single definition or single history of information; like any other historical subject it has a complex relationship with the past. This is made all the more intricate because of our own contemporary relationship with information. It has a paradoxical existence in our own society: on one hand the subject of constant political and cultural discussion in relation to personal privacy rights, data protection, the surveillance state and so on, whilst on the other hand often appearing to be an ordinary, everyday phenomenon. This latter experience is a result of our over-exposure to information: we take it for granted. Consequently, until the information turn of the late 1990s and early 2000s
Historians have been guilty of not seeing the wood for the trees. We use different types of ‘information’ all the time in our research in the form of documents, letters, diaries, archives, or newspapers, so we do not easily distance ourselves from these materials as information sources in order to think about information more conceptually.1
Information history allows us to revisit established historical discourses and to challenge them. It offers new perspectives on contemporary information debates and concerns. It can challenge the chronology of the information age. At the end of the previous chapter, Luke Tredinnick concluded that
Toni Weller
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