Historical Information Science:

Historical Information Science:

A Unidiscpline at the Intercises of History, Computing, and Information Science

Lawrence J. McCrank

Executive Director, Libraries and Learning Resources, Davenport College, 415 East Fulton, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 USA E-Mail: or


Historical Information Science is introduced as a hybrid of History's theory, methods, and principles applied as metadata for automated information storage and retrieval (ISAR). description, classification, and computer-assisted analysis, coupled with the scientific study of information creation, access and dissemination, pertaining to special collections libraries, archives, and museums It is characterized as a unidiscipline at the interstices of History, Information Sciences, Computing, and Administrative Science for project management.


Information Science (IS), an empirical science concerning the generation, organization, access and transmission, and assimilation of information, arose as a combination of computing and library science, especially bibiiometrics, almost contemporary with the first generation of Cliometricians in the Anglo-American world, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. The two endeavors, however, grew separately rather than together, and have remained distinct for a variety of reasons. IS specializations may be identified today by their applications to a wide variety of information services, such as government and corporate information work, but especially in libraries, archives, museums, where traditionally historians worked as well, so one might assume that greater collaboration might have existed in both interdisciplinarity and practical education. One might more properly speak, as has been done often, of the Information Sciences distinguished by their application in particular organizations.

Unfortunately, History is not commonly seen as one of them. This is partially because historians now see themselves primarily as teachers in higher education and only academics, rather than practitioners of History in a variety of fields. Other proclivities distance the two as well. As quantification in History came under scrutiny more intense than any other movement in historiography, and consequently waned, the empirical study of information, its forms, (nodes, media, and means, with foci on various contexts, organizations, and applications, grew with the advances in computing and related information technology. The contraction of computing and empirical research in History separated historical textual studies more and more from the Social Sciences, and the assault ofdcconstructiomsm and post-modernism on scientific historicism particularly and historical sensibilities in general, forced the gap wider. This schism effectively divorced History and Information Science, so that although Social Science History survives as a specialization^ Information Science in History is rare Likewise, History in Information Science is uncommon, except in recent attempts to create a history of the information sciences. But Information Science is largely ahistorical in method and inteirpretation, and until recently has been rather antagonistic with History No specialization has evolved focusing on the unique Information Science problems and methods in using historical information, or in applying historical reasoning with its conscientiousness about time and place, in information systems, services, daia analysis and research methodology.

This situation has changed tremendously in recent years, in an era of interdisciplinarity and rapidly advancing information technologies, to such an extent that identifiable trends may be seen to form a new synthesis at the three-dimensional intersection of Information Science, Computing, and History. A unifying interdisciplinary approach and sets of methodologies with modem information technology may be seen as, to adopt the neo-Annales term, a unidiscipline. The ingredients are (1) a resurrection ofneo-positivism within the modem context of "soft" sciences rather than the old attempt to emulate the hard physical sciences: (2) renewed consciousness of the role of history in all information that is not fleetingly contemporary; (3) a search for the history of the information sciences contemporary with the use of history in managing organizational change in what is now seen as an Administrative Science

(Organizational Behavior, Psychology, etc.); (4) a continuity with older Cliometrics and quantification methodologies in the S ocial Sciences, now expanded to accommodate qualitative approaches as well, such as new means to handle imperfect and fuzzy data; (5) the so-called "Information Age" revolution in information technology which makes possible collaborative research on an international scale; and (6) new dynamic and interactive media making possible new and exciting forms of data representation, visualization, mediation, and human-machine interaction.

The concept of Historical Information Science would be discussed in terms of these modem trends, as a precise of the forthcoming book, Historical Information Sconce: An Emerging Unidisc spline (Mcd ford. NJ: Information Today. [Oct. 1999], 1500 pp.), a bibliographic essay synthesizing woric since the adveni otpersonal computers in 1984, backed by a 5500-citation bibliography. This is an extension of the author's benchmark study commissioned by the American Society for Information Science on "History, Computing, and Archives" m the 1995 Annual Review of Information Science and Technology. An introduction to this subject will also appear in the American Historical Association's Ptirxpecttvcs section on "History & Information Science and Technology" (for which the author is the AHA editor)