Essay: The Implications of Information Technology for the Future Study of History (Kevin Schurer, 1998)

“The Implications of Information Technology for the Future Study of History,” Kevin Schurer (1998)

Schurer’s article provides an overview of the main problems regarding data archival: decay, obsolescence, and the need for context. He also states that many librarians (at least by 1998) had few computer skills. Beyond this, the primary focus of his essay is on how historians will interact with the data and how despite our profusion of information today, little of it may actually survive for future historians. He further extrapolates on how this will affect future history. In the end, he calls for governmental institutions to cooperate in order to preserve ‘machine-readable records’ for the future because individual groups have varying resources and “in order to share expertise and avoid the needless duplication of effort.” Beyond this, the article has limited application due to its focus on old technology and contemporary developments.
Though the examples used are important for illustrating his points, this suggests to me that any essay discussing technology must do so in a broader sense, thinking about larger patterns rather than specific technologies. Because technology develops so rapidly, what was hot at the time of publication has become obsolete by the time a future scholar finds the essay. Broader patterns, however, should exist throughout technological developments of the same sort (such as data storage) while new patterns would emerge through new kinds of technologies (such as new ways of accessing information). As such, a better resource might be a ‘Preservation 101’ that discusses patterns such as the basics of bit rot, obsolescence, context, etc. with a secondary resource dealing specifically and in broader terms with how historians relate with information.

The reason I bring up this latter point is because Schurer’s statements regarding Darwin’s notes is historical documentation unique to a particular point in history governed by the technologies present. Readily available writing materials is only something that developed after paper has become cheap to produce (and literacy was also promoted). Thus, we would not expect to find personal journals from Chaucer’s time and earlier due to the scarcity of written materials. Further, the technologies we use for communication clearly impact how we think (as Vannevar Bush has stated) – we create ideas differently on paper than we do in a word processor and different still if we are in an oral culture. This is nothing new, though it is something we may tend to forget.

So while Schurer states that “the practice of history itself will be subject to change,” the practice of history has always been subject to change, whether we are talking oral history or a transition from the spoken to the written word or the written to the mechanical. Thus, interpretations of historical events change not only in relation to contemporary politics and historical events, but also from the media we use and how these affect the way we think.

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